S.F. schools combat online cruelty amid wide concern

By: Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

Kellyn Dong listens with her son Lucas, 11, during
"Stand Up, Don't Stand By: How to Put an End to Bullying
in a 24/7 Digital World," a presentation on cyberbullying at
James Lick Middle School in San Francisco.
Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

With each beep or buzz, a message flashes across the screen: You're ugly. No one likes you. You're a slut.
You should kill yourself.

About half of American teens receive similar personal attacks - verbal or visual cyberbullying - on their phones or computers each year. That's up from about zero just a decade ago.

The reverberations trickle onto schoolyards and into classrooms, where distraught students can't focus, avoid interacting, or skip school altogether to avoid embarrassment or threats.

The list of kids who take the texts or posts so seriously that they kill themselves is on the national radar.
"When it happens on the playground ... there are people looking out for that," said Kevin Truitt, San Francisco school district associate superintendent of student, family and community support.

"When it's on these devices, it's more sinister in a way. It's so invasive, and we can't stop it."

The escalation of electronic attacks has politicians, parents and school principals scrambling to catch up to today's tech-savvy kids to prevent more damage - and death.

San Francisco school and city officials are trying to head off a worst-case scenario like the one that took place in Florida recently, where authorities are prosecuting two girls, ages 12 and 14, on charges of aggravated stalking related to the suicide of a classmate they allegedly harassed online.

Doing something

District Attorney George Gascón recently gathered parents of school-age children and school staff at James Lick Middle School to talk about cyberbullying and what parents and others can do about it.

He stood at the front of the school's auditorium and peered out over the audience of mostly empty seats.

"There should be standing room only," he said. "This is a problem that affects so many kids. The reality is there are hundreds of thousands of cases every year where kids are suffering in silence."

And by the time a case hits his desk, "It's already too late," he said.

Parent Edgar Beals was among the 50 adults in the auditorium.

He said he is trying to monitor the online world where his son, 12, and daughter, 14, spend a good deal of time.
"My daughter and son opened Facebook accounts secretly before I knew about it," he said, adding that they lied to get around the site's minimum age requirement of 13. "They are rogue in terms of their use of cyberspace. They know it and they are way ahead of me."

The dark side

Co-sponsored by the San Francisco school district and Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates media and encourages cyber-responsibility, the event offered parents a glimpse into the dark side of the digital world and advice on how to guide their children through it.

"Kids are speaking another language we adults don't understand," said Merve Lapus, educational program manager for Common Sense Media. "Even if you don't understand everything your kids are doing, you can still parent."

Teens send an average of 3,400 texts per month, and children 8 to 18 spend about 53 hours on electronic devices - not including phone calls or homework, Lapus said.

New social media sites and apps are popping up all the time, offering novel ways to communicate and the potential to torment.

Graphic illustration

As parents filed into the auditorium, Gascón pulled out his iPhone to illustrate how quickly an online innovation can go from entertainment to intimidation.

He Googled an app called Snapchat that Stanford University students developed. It allows users to send a photo or video that, once the recipient sees it, is almost instantly deleted.

The idea is to send an image that has a one- to 10-second life span.

It is, teens and others have discovered, the seemingly perfect app for sending nude or semi-nude pictures or videos.

Without trying hard, Gascón said he instantly found "leaked Snapchat" images, saved from a screenshot or other method by recipients and then blasted onto the Internet. Some of those images are of semi-nude and pornographic photos taken by Snapchat users, some of whom appear to be underage.

So much for short-lived. Recipients can take a private message and share it, perhaps after an ugly breakup.
School policies and laws are increasingly acknowledging and addressing the problems associated with malicious use of digital media, especially after highly publicized suicides connected to cyberbullying.

Tragic consequences

Last year, Saratoga High School student Audrie Pott hanged herself after boys she knew sexually assaulted her when she passed out at a Saratoga home and then took pictures of her that were posted online. The boys are facing charges of sexual battery and possession and distribution of child pornography, plus a civil suit filed by Audrie's parents.

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows educators to suspend or expel cyberbullies, even if the harassment has nothing to do with school and occurs off campus.

Some school districts have gone further. In Glendale, officials have hired a firm to monitor middle and high school students on social media.

After hitting 'send'

In San Francisco, the district is focused on prevention, offering monthly lessons on "digital citizenship" to help students understand the possible results of their actions after they hit the send button.

And on Nov. 12, San Francisco schools will hold the second annual Digital Media Safety Instruction Day, offering 60 to 90 minutes of advice to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Truitt, the San Francisco school official, has seen the emotional toll cyberbullying takes on students, with students as young as 6 or 7 experiencing digital harassment.

And he has seen the text messages from students encouraging classmates to kill themselves.

"They keep it, they hold it, they let that simmer in them and it eats away at them," he said. "Schools have been taking much more ownership on dealing with these things."

What is bullying?

California defines bullying as "any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or by means of an electronic act, and including one or more acts committed by a pupil or group of pupils ... directed toward one or more pupils that has or can be reasonably predicted to have the effect of one or more of the following:

(A) Placing a reasonable pupil or pupils in fear of harm to that pupil's or those pupils' person or property.
(B) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience a substantially detrimental effect on his or her physical or mental health.
(C) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience substantial interference with his or her academic performance.
(D) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience substantial interference with his or her ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.

Source: California Education Code