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GC School District Addresses Cyber Bullying Concerns

Committee Offers Findings and  Recommendations to Board of Education

No matter what village, city or state, school bullies have remained an unwelcome part of the educational landscape for generations. But did you know that in a 2010 survey conducted by Scholastic, 21 percent of middle and high school students in the United States have received mean or threatening email messages and 14 percent have received mean or hurtful comments online?

Members of the Garden City School District’s Cyber Bullying Committee addressed the hot-button issue and presented a series of findings and recommendations to the Board of Education at the May 10 work session at Garden City High School.

Last September, the Committee, co-chaired by Dr. Fino Celano, assistant superintendent for personnel, and Dr. Rita Melikian, director of technology, was charged to take this growing and evolving topic and create an action plan for the district to follow, which includes offering educational and outreach programs.

Cyber bullying has gained increased public awareness and media attention due to the rise in teen suicides with incidents on Long Island and across the country. In the presentation, the term “cyber bullying” was defined as the “willful and repeated harm of a person inflicted through electronic devices. Cyber bullying can be used to torment, threaten, harass, humiliate, embarrass or otherwise target a victim by using Internet, digital technologies or mobile phones.”

The committee recommendations call for developing a comprehensive Internet safety and anti bullying program for all grade levels from elementary to high school. In addition, a revised and updated code of conduct/computer use and board of education policy was deemed necessary. It was also suggested that the district identify a building point person(s) who both staff and students can go to and implement cyber bullying outreach programs to parents during transition meetings in grade eight and nine and grade five and six. In the committee’s findings, it was recommended that the administration maintain a district-wide cyber bullying committee and offer educational programs for students, staff and parents.

Board of Education Trustee Laura Hastings asked members of the committee about the legal nexus between incidents of cyber bullying that occur outside the school and within the school. Hastings asked, “Say there’s a posting on Facebook in the evening, and the next morning, all the girls are whispering about that posting, which is about another girl…Can you step in? Can the school step in?”

Dr. Celano responded that the school can and does step in those kinds of situations because the whisperings make that student very comfortable. “So it would fall under the category of bullying, continuing from the cyber into the school. And it’s also a disruption of the educational environment. On that basis, the school does have a nexus to be able to impose a consequence, even though initially the activity took place outside of school at home, which it often, often, often does with cyber bullying. These things are not happening, for the most part, in school; they’re happening outside of school,” Celano said.

Hastings also asked if parents know the true consequences of cyber bullying. “Parents might step in a little quicker if they knew something their kid put on Facebook the night before has a consequence even in school. How do parents learn those consequences?”

Dr. Celano explained the district is introducing the message to parents through the website, newsletters and via the PTA, which sponsors presentations to parents. He explained a scenario where teenagers who are ‘sexting’ may be sending inappropriate pictures of themselves to a boyfriend or a girlfriend and the couple breaks up.

“That picture is then sent in anger to everyone on that contact list that that person has. That action is a crime and it is considered a sex offense. It is considered to be creating and/or distributing child pornography, and therefore, kids have been convicted of that have gone to jail for years and are now, for the rest of their lives, on the sex offender list. That’s just one example of how serious this and how severe the consequences are,” Celano said.

School Board Trustee Tom Pinou said the presentation was “a real eye-opener.” Trustee Angela Heineman echoed that sentiment and asked what the district’s principals have experience with the issue.

Garden City High School Principal Nanine Cuttitta said the administration has to know about the incident to help. “Students feel that if they tell the school or their parents tell the school, it’s only going to get worse,” she said, adding, “I would say cyber bullying, in particular, maybe five to eight issues that have warranted disciplinary infractions in maybe the past two years.”

Cuttitta maintained that if an incident of cyber bulling comes to the school’s attention, the matter will be discussed with the student and his or her parents. The school will then follow-up with an official warning letter in writing and, if the behavior continues, the incident will go on the student’s permanent record. “I’m happy to say in almost all the time that works,” Cuttitta said.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Feirsen said the administration has also discussed how cyber bullying can create a hostile culture in the school and can be negative for all students. He also stated that the district plans to work with faculty, parents and students to get the message out that “we will not tolerate a hostile environment where kids feel that they have to look over their shoulder, either literally or figuratively, to have a good day. And that we can, to the best of our ability, we can ensure that the good feelings they bring to school in the morning, they leave with at the end of the day,” Feirsen said.