Digital bullies



As the summer begins to wind down and kids prepare to go back to school, some students are steeling themselves for an unfortunate prospect: confronting bullies. And while bullying still happens in school hallways, locker rooms and playgrounds, kid-on-kid torment increasingly has gone digital.

And bullying that happens via text, Snapchat, Instagram messaging or video game chat presents a frustrating problem for school administrators.

The concept of cyberbullying is not new, and many states, including Maine, have provided staff training and support to address the problem. But according to the latest U.S. Department of Education statistics, cyberbullying in schools is still on the rise and girls are three times as likely to be bullied as boys, by 21 percent to 7 percent.

Schools can only oversee students six hours a day, five days a week and monitoring what they do on their cell phones is a whole other matter. According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 95 percent of American teens ages 13 to 17 report having a smartphone or access to one and 45 percent say they are online “on a near-constant basis.” The internet gives children and teens a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week opportunity to pick on each other. People will say things to each other online that they would never say to someone’s face. And victims can’t escape the onslaught by going home.

Not surprisingly, persistent cyberbullying has been associated with an increased risk of suicide, which is on the rise among young people.

Keeping students safe has to be a school’s first priority, and discipline for students who bully on school grounds or at school events should be swift and sure. Students who are victims of or witnesses to bullying need to speak up and stand up for each other. Children, with guidance from their parents and other adult role models, need to learn to interact with their peers without tearing each other down.

Teachers have an important role in combating bullying, but tasking them with sorting out all the drama of their students’ online lives is too much to ask. School social workers and counselors should play a big role, but there are often not enough to go around.

Maine schools have a 303-to-1 ratio of students to counselors, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That figure is much higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the National Association of Social Workers, but it beats the national student-to-counselor ratio of 444:1. Maine is ahead of the curve in that respect, but there’s still room to improve, especially in poor and rural areas.

We need to make sure that schools have the tools they need to keep students safe and fight cyberbullying.

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