BANGOR, Maine — With the end of summer vacation and the excitement of coming back to school ebbing, school officials, educators and police officers are hoping to curtail a growing problem before it leads to a tragic ending.
The Acadia Hospital hosted a 90-minute forum on cyberbullying that drew an interested crowd of 50 people to listen to presentations and trade ideas and questions on cyberbullying, cyberstalking, sexting and harassment.
Dan Johnson, Acadia’s director of educational services, and Jason McAmbley, Bangor Police Department’s community relations officer, provided overviews of these problems and what some of the more harmful results can be.
“This is a topic that really has some traction and we thought it would be really good timing with the beginning of school going on,” Johnson said.
Cyberbullying and similar forms of harassment can lead to — at best — self-esteem problems and — at worst — fines, prison sentences and deaths. Several examples were cited by both speakers, such as the case of a Massachusetts teen from Ireland who killed herself last year after being taunted and ridiculed on the Internet and by text messages by classmates.
“It’s not new to us, but it’s getting more frequent,” McAmbley said. “We’ve been dealing with it in some form since there have been computers and cell phones.”
The main thrust of the forum was identifying the key players — victims, bullies and bystanders — and curtailing or stopping bullying and harassment before it starts by making potential bystanders more aware of cyberbullying’s dangers and consequences.
“If you have a group of peers who are educated on the topic and are willing to step up, they can make people understand that this isn’t OK,” said Johnson. “I really liked the comment from someone in the back row about having peers go into schools, especially the idea of having high school kids talk to middle school kids because middle school kids idolize high schoolers.”
The peer approach was well received Thursday.
“I went to a meeting in South Portland and there was a principal there from one school which had the kids make up the rules for cell phone use and she said the problems have just plummeted. It has really helped,” McAmbley said.
Even attendees who weren’t high school, middle school or grammar school educators appeared to find the forum enlightening.
“Most things for us center around pictures that can be posted online or sent on phones,” said Warren Caruso, head coach of Husson University’s men’s basketball program for 18 years and the school’s director of development. “The bullying is less of an issue by the time they get to college, but with Twitter and Facebook, our student-athletes especially need to stay within appropriate boundaries and they have to be careful with what they put out there.”
McAmbley said cyberbullying and stalking is still in a gray area when it comes to legal penalties.
“In some cases, people get charged either with harassment or stalking, as that’s the law we’re working under and those are misdemeanors,” said McAmbley. “Some laws are falling behind, so we’re starting with the schools first to try to head a lot of these problems off hopefully before they start.”