Recently, traditional face-to-face bullying has been replaced by cyberbullying, leaving schools needing to fine tune their role and clarify responsibility for intervention and consequence.
Cyberbullying is the act of teasing, harassing or acting in a cruel or hostile manner using technology, like cell phones or social networking sites, often between minors. Unlike face-to-face bullying, which administrators and teachers can monitor to some degree, cyberbullying is rarely observed by adults. Many social networking sites are blocked on school computers, making it difficult to administer punishment.
In response to this, California has passed several laws specifically targeting cyberbullying. On April 16, a bill, AB 1732, was passed in the California assembly, allowing schools to punish cyberbullying on social networking sites by suspension or expulsion. Another recent bill, SB 1411, effective on Jan. 1 2011, made maliciously impersonating another person online a misdemeanor, punishable by time in jail and a fine. A 2001 law requires the Department of Education to make model policies on bullying available and allows the school district to choose which policies to enforce. Later legislation expanded the definition of bullying, as stated in the above law, to include electronic bullying.
On page 53 of the 2011-2012 SFUSD Student and Parent/Guardian Handbook, cyberbullying is defined as a subset of bullying. “Bullying is prohibited, including, but not limited to, bullying committed by means of an electronic act, directed specifically toward a pupil or school personnel.”
The challenge to schools to deal with the issue of cyberbullying has become a national issue. “Schools these days are confronted with complex questions on whether and how to deal with cyberbullying, ” stated a June 27, 2010 New York Times article. Several incidents at schools in the San Francisco Unified School District have prompted controversy about how schools may appropriately and effectively deal with this new type of bullying.
Washington High School
At Washington High School on March 7, three seniors were suspended for cyberbullying teachers, though the decision was later reversed.
The students submitted ideas for memes — or an image that is passed around with interactive captions — to a Tumblr page titled “Scumbag Teachers,” according to a student involved in the incident who would speak to The Lowell only on the condition of anonymity. The student said she contributed to the page but was not the creator. “I just submitted an idea to the blog,” the student said. “No one really knows who created the blog.”
The student said the memes were not intended as weapons of cyberbullying. “Our intent was definitely just to joke around,” she said. “Tumblr is a place to post sarcastic comments.”
However, after classifying the memes as cyberbullying (as per the SFUSD student handbook), the school took action immediately. According to the student, adminstrators asked whether she had created the Tumblr page, but she denied being the creator.
All these students were suspended for three days by the administration. Three days’ suspension constitutes a withdrawal of school privileges, including prom, graduation and any position on student government — one student was removed from a SBC position — under Washington school policy, according to the student.
Administrators took the student’s phone and read the student’s text messages, according to the student. Some of the text messages did discuss ideas for the Tumblr blog, and two friends, who had each submitted ideas for the blog, were investigated.
The student said she didn’t know how the administration learned of the memes or her involvement with the page. The creator of the page was not caught, and the student assumed he or she probably took the page down due to the school investigation.
The student said her mother was outraged at the actions of the school, and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU argued that the school had violated several laws, including search and seizure by confiscating the phone and reading the texts, which is permitted only when a student is suspected of cheating on a test, according to the student. “They said First Amendment rights were violated because the school cannot just tell us to stop because they feel victimized,” she said. “Also, the idea for the meme was submitted outside of school, from my home computer. They didn’t provide a translator for our parents when they came to pick us up, which they were supposed to do.”
The school’s action was reversed by the district, allowing the students the option of attending their senior activities, and the suspension was erased from their records, according to the student. Despite the reversal of the decision, the student said the suspension was academically damaging. “I had to miss a few days of school, and AP testing is coming up.”
When contacted by email on April 18, Erica Lovrin, principal of Washington High School, said she could not discuss the incident. “I cannot share any specifics regarding this situation since I have to protect the privacy of the students involved,” Lovrin said. “I am unable to comment due to this reason.”
The student said that, in her opinion, the fact that school staff was targeted in the memes had to do with the response. “If students had reported cyberbullying, the teachers wouldn’t have reacted so quickly,” the student said. “They wouldn’t have immediately called the cops and suspended people.”
Lowell JV Football Team
During Oct. or Nov. 2009, some members of the JV football team created a false Facebook account for teammate junior Marcello Peray-Genovese, who was then a freshman.
On the falsified account, four players posted false statuses and chatted with friends while impersonating Peray-Genovese on Facebook. They also uploaded a photo taken in the locker room of Peray-Genovese starting to lift up his shirt to change and a video of him showering in the locker room in boxer shorts after football practice with other members of the JV team.
According to the 2011-2012 SFUSD Student and Parent/Guardian Handbook, posting the photo and video was in violation of school rules. “Students may not use personal electronic signaling devices at school to take pictures, film or video of students…without the prior written consent of the student or staff person,” it states.
Peray-Genovese noticed social repercussions soon after the account was created, a year before he discovered it. “I didn’t understand why at the time, but after the winter break of 2010 people started avoiding me,” he said. “I asked a couple of people why they were avoiding me and they just kind of blew me off, they didn’t want to say to my face ‘because you’re f***ed up.’”
Peray-Genovese discovered the existence of the account when he was approached and harassed by a group of students while at Stonestown with his sister during winter break of the following 2010-2011 school year, according to Peray-Genovese, a year after the page was started. “They started saying that I’m gay, everyone knows about it, it’s all on the Facebook,” he said. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Worried by the incident, Peray-Genovese checked Facebook and found a profile in his name, though he had never signed up for an account. “We went home and looked up my name on Facebook, and there was this fake profile of me that talked s*** to other people,” Peray-Genovese said. “It mostly said homosexual comments, that I was gay or that I liked penis.”
One teammate who was involved in the bullying spoke to The Lowell on the condition of anonymity. He said he had taken full responsibility with the administration because he was the one who originally created the account. Fake Facebook accounts had been created before this incident, but not with names of actual people. The incident was not a form of hazing, according to the student who created the profile.
However, according to the SB 1411 law mentioned in the introduction of the article, which took effect this year, impersonation like this could now be punishable by the law, as a misdemeanor.
The student said he was still participating in the account when the locker room photo and video of Peray-Genovese were posted. Other posts included listing the sexual orientation as “Interested in Men and Women,” on the profile, according to the student.
According to Peray-Genovese, they also posted ethnic stereotypes about being Italian. After viewing the page, Peray-Genovese compiled a list of students who regularly posted on the wall of the fake account, and that teammate was among them.
After creating the page and posting on it for about a month, the student said he did not have any dealings with the account for a year. “After a while it got old, and I just didn’t touch it,” the student said. “Then about a year later it came up again. The dean called me into his office, and there was a police officer, and they’re like ‘What’s this Facebook thing?’ And I’m like ‘What Facebook thing?’ and they brought it all up. I was thinking that that’s pretty old, but, hey, it resurfaced.”
Despite the resemblance of the page to a prank, Peray-Genovese had not heard from others at school about the account. “People on there [the page] were saying ‘This isn’t Marcello. What are you talking about?’ even though no one had cared to tell me, so I didn’t find out for a year and a half,” Peray-Genovese said.
The day after he found out about the false Facebook account, Peray-Genovese said he called the police. After a joint police-administration investigation, the administration disciplined the one student who had created the account, although the uploading of the locker room image on the Facebook wall had been added by a different student, according to Peray-Genovese. “No other students were suspended because he claimed full responsibility, even though there was a picture and a video on there of me changing in the locker room, which I didn’t know they took,” he said.
Cordoba and principal Andrew Ishibashi declined to go into specific details about the case due to privacy issues. However, Ishibashi discussed standard steps schools may take to help alleviate a bullying situation, including mediation if the family of the victim wishes. Both student sources said there was no mediation between the bullies and the victim. “We never sat down and talked about it person-to-person,” the student who created the account said.
Peray-Genovese and his parents filed for a restraining order, but the court denied the request on the grounds that no physically violent attacks occurred, according to Peray-Genovese. Peray-Genovese said he had heard rumors of threats from the alleged bullies through friends, but he was never harmed or confronted by the bullies following the incident, he said.
The student who had created the page expressed that he felt that the administration and victim saw the account differently than he had intended, and more seriously. “I made a fake Facebook account, as a little gag we had. I know it was a bad thing, a problem, but I wasn’t meaning any harm. But the way people interpret stuff is different.”
The student said he did not think the punishment, three days’ suspension, was too harsh. “Basically it’s like a slap on wrist for that first time,” he said. “I don’t think what I did was the worst thing in the world. I learned from it, and I haven’t done something like that since.”
The student, however, did end up questioning his decision to set up the fake page. “It was something stupid I did, and I totally regret it,” he said. “I had a moment where I realized a lot of stuff I had done wrong, so I went to him and said I’m sorry and I apologized for what had happened. I don't think he’s forgiven me yet, but I can’t do anything about that.”
Peray-Genovese said he felt the apology by the student who created the page was insincere and done to please the administration.
The student who created the false account expressed that he felt the incident was managed well by the school, but added that he thought the school should take a different approach to educating the student body about cyberbullying. “At senior and junior class meetings, the dean brings in a police officer and he talks about this issue. I think that it helps and that it is very important that people do take cyberbullying seriously. However, people don’t take class meetings seriously in general, so when a class meeting has only one-sixth or one-seventh of the students in that grade, how can the whole student body know about it?”
After the incident, Peray-Genovese didn’t feel comfortable playing football with the alleged bullies. “I loved playing football, and after that, since they stayed on the football team, I was no longer able to participate,” he said. “That was what I enjoyed doing. I was in the sport for two years, and then I switched to cross country this year.”
The student who created the account said his outlook has changed. “It really helped me realize that there is a problem with cyberbullying,” he said. “I didn’t mean any harm, but there are times when people are threatening other people or intentionally trying to hurt people and it is a serious problem. People bring stuff up that other people would not want to be put out there in the public; because on those social networking websites, everything can be seen by anyone.”
Lakeshore Elementary School
At Lakeshore Elementary School, Lowell’s next-door neighbor, incidents of cyberbullying among fourth graders prompted an effort by adminstrators both to improve student behavior and to crack down on bullies.
In two separate acts of cyberbullying in successive years of fourth graders, students were singled out by other students on Facebook, according to fourth grade teacher Michael McCauslin.
This was despite earlier efforts to positively impact student behavior through a school-wide mindfulness course. The program was effective in modifying the school climate, as the number of suspensions was greatly reduced. “Everyone saw a change in the climate of the school,” McCauslin said. “Until the Facebook incident, there were almost a third of the suspensions of a typical year.”
In the first incident, hate comments were made on a Facebook page about a 4th grade boy originating from a kickball game disagreement. But the school staff talked with the students and alleviated the issue. After the page was discovered, parents were notified, but there was no further punishment, according to 4th grade teacher Michael McCauslin.
However, a year later, a new group of 4th grader students participated in a similar, but more obscene act of cyberbullying. A Facebook group was created by a girl in the class, targeting another girl, according to McCauslin.
Two members of the group who contributed to the body of offensive comments were suspended for three days, and three to five other contributors were suspended for one day each, according to McCauslin. “It was a pretty vulgar sexual reference about her, but when we talked about it, the kids didn’t really understand what the things they were saying meant,” he said. “But they knew it was gross and that she wouldn’t like it.”
The target of this cyberbullying was much more affected than the victim the year before, and the school intervened in several ways. “She did feel pretty bad; she had a hard time figuring out how to behave around other kids,” McCauslin said. “Several teachers in the afterschool program really focused a lot of attention on her, and helped her get through it,” McCauslin said.
The contributors to the group expressed regret after the group was discovered. “Really, all the main kids felt really bad and very embarrassed that it had been discovered by teachers, and very embarrassed to be suspended,” McCauslin said.
The school arranged a talk by the District Attorney and a police officer on cyberbullying for the class. “The presentation was really focused on laws and what kind of trouble you can get in for cyberbullying, and the kids were pretty shaken up by it,” McCauslin said.
As a follow-up, the school discussed bullying at a Parent Teacher Association meeting, and held a student discussion that revealed that not all students felt safe in the hallways, so the school increased hallway supervision.
The Lowell Journalism Classes
In the journalism lab at Lowell (S107), students used their access to computers to bully other journalists who had left their emails logged in.
In Oct. 2011, journalism advisor and English teacher Sharn Matusek discovered the issue of identity theft over emails that were left logged in. “I got an email from a student that seemed to be innocuous, but when I mentioned it, he said he had not sent it,” Matusek said. “I quickly learned that three other students had experienced similar and ongoing email theft.”
The issue was discussed with editors-in-chief and web editors, as well as the victims. “I knew it was a joke, but it didn’t seem funny, it just seemed immature,” editor in-chief for The Lowell, senior Natasha Khan said. Khan was one of the students whose email was misused.
After consulting the 2011-2012 SFUSD Student and Parent/Guardian Handbook and the district policy, the journalism advisors, Matusek and Latin teacher Samuel Williams, decided on their course of action. “It was clear that the policies directed us to inform the administration,” Matusek said. She reported the issue to dean of students Ray Cordoba. When Matusek reported the S107 issue, Cordoba told her student emails had been falsely used by others on school computers elsewhere, according to Matusek.
All journalism staff were required to sign a contract by March 3 that agreed they would respect the privacy of others, as well as protect their own, along with guidelines for use. “Quit the email account/browser/work if someone has left an account or work open,” the contract stipulates. “Do not use someone else’s account under any circumstances.” If the contract is violated, that student will have computer privileges suspended, according to Matusek.
Students doubt the effectiveness of the contract unless it is enforced. “I think the contract has the potential to be effective, but it is up to the advisors to make sure that it is kept enforced in order for it to work,” senior Daniel Green said. Green is a photo editor and web staff member who contributed with the drafting of the contract.
No incidents have been reported since the fall, according to Matusek. “One point that we realized had to be made was that even though the victims involved say they know it’s just joking around, they might feel uncomfortable,” Matusek said. “Also, it was clear that the inappropriateness and general meanness of the fake emails had escalated over a few months. If cyberbullying is not dealt with, it tends to get worse.”
A version of this article first appeared in the April. 27, 2012 print edition of The Lowell.