By Jack Firneno
Bullying ain’t what it used to be.
“For generations, there’s been a culture of meanness, and it changes its face from the playground bully or the one kid on the block,” said Mandy Mundy, director of education and training at Nova Bucks.
With school starting in just a few weeks, bullying will be on the minds of school administrators and other professionals across the region. It’s a problem that’s gotten more recognition in recent years, due both to a better understanding of its far-reaching effects and also how much more prevalent the problem has become.
“There are those old adages: ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘Fight back’ or, ‘I went through it and I was fine.’ And there are some children who are more resilient than others,” continued Mundy. “But for those without strong families or strong support systems, it can be more impactful.”
Effects from bullying can be anything from truancy, when kids are afraid of bullies, to long-term repercussions like drug and alcohol abuse, severe depression or even suicide.
And, one of the reasons the effects have gotten worse is because bullying has found a new home on the Internet. In trying to address online harassment, or cyberbullying, said Mundy, “You feel like you learned about one venue, then you take a breath and something else pops up.”
For Jennifer Dilks, principal for Murray Avenue School in Lower Moreland, cyberbullying has been a concern at the middle school for the six years she’s been there.
“It’s been an issue as technology becomes more prevalent and portable,” she explained. “It’s a way to bully each other unsupervised, versus when you’re in a structured environment where it’s more difficult.”
Cyberbullying can be anything from sending mean-spirited or threatening text messages one-on-one to a peer, or ganging up on someone or spreading rumors using social media.
Since kids are more connected than ever — “They carry [Internet access] around on their phones,” Dilks pointed out — the harassment often doesn’t stop when a child gets home. And, the relative anonymity of the Internet turns people who wouldn’t necessarily be a bully into one.
“Sometimes, friendships go up and down, and a fight amongst a friend group turns more difficult when it plays out over text messages or Facebook or Instagram,” she said. “Kids will say things in text or online that they wouldn’t say in person.”
Cyberbullying also poses a new problem for schools, in that more kids who know each other only from school can interact completely outside school hours — and a school’s jurisdiction.
“If [the children involved] only know each other because of school, we try to take extra steps to help even though they’re not required. Much of it happens outside of school, but if it spills over, you can have consequences,” said Dilks.
She said her school will often make a courtesy call to parents letting them know when a child has brought an instance of cyber bullying to their attention. Most times, they’re receptive, she said, especially considering that an alternative step for the bullied child’s parents would be to go directly to the cops.
“They can and they do sometimes, depending on what’s said or if they don’t know where else to go. [Parents] call the police more when they believe a threat has been made, or if the nature of the comment is, ‘I wanna kill you’ and it sounds like a threat,” she said.
But people like Dilks and Mundy work to solve these problems before they reach law enforcement.
“School climate is a big part. You need a comfortable environment where it’s safe for kids to tell us, and we take the reports extremely seriously,” said Dilks. The school also “spends a great deal of time” outlining what’s acceptable and what’s not to both students and parents. “We keep them abreast of trends and assure them that we keep any reports they make confidential.”
But some trends have silver linings. The ability to document happenings online, for instance, makes it easier to see exactly what’s going on. When students approach school staffers about cyberbullying, said Dilks, “We’ll ask them to show us their phone, or sometimes they’ll print it out.”
And, the ability to talk freely and often online also generates positive conversations. “We’re raising a generation that talks about it openly,” said Mundy. “There are Facebook and Twitter groups that promote kindness, and anti-bullying messages, and there are national campaigns with messages about respect and empathy.”