They don’t just shake you down for your lunch money anymore.
In today’s digital world, bullies have left the playground and now go after their targets on Twitter and Facebook, through e-mail and by cell phone.
“The kids who beat you up in school didn’t follow you home,” said Parry Aftab, an attorney and national expert on cyberbullying based in New York City. “Now they do.”
Aftab will be in Billings on Monday and Tuesday to lead a panel discussion on the dangers and effects of cyberbullying during the second annual Safe Schools Safe Community event at Montana State University Billings. Topics include the dangers of “sexting” — teenagers texting graphic, racy or sexually explicit videos and photos of themselves.
The goal of the conference is to help those who attend create an action plan to address cyberbullying at the school, community and state levels. Aftab and others will build an outline to help lawmakers draft legislation to create effective cyberbullying laws.
“She’s agreed to do that for free for the state of Montana,” said Kim Schweikert, with MSUB’s College of Professional Studies and one of the event’s organizers.
Joining Aftab at the conference will be Cynthia Logan, whose daughter Jessica Logan committed suicide two years ago.
Jessica Logan graduated from a Cincinnati-area high school in 2008. During her senior year, she texted a nude photo of herself to the boy she’d been dating, who then texted the photo to friends. It wasn’t long until the photo was circulating around the six Cincinnati-area high schools.
Logan was ridiculed for months by her peers. At one point, she went on television anonymously and was interviewed by the local broadcast news as a way to warn other teens about the dangers of texting racy photos of themselves to others.
The school year ended, and that summer Jessica Logan attended the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide. She came home and later that day went up to her bedroom and hanged herself in her closet.
The problem with cyberbullying, Aftab said, is that the attacks begin to feel unrelenting, ever-present and very public.
“You can’t turn it off,” she said.
In some high-profile cases — like Jessica Logan’s — it results in suicide. And even after death, sometimes the attacks continue. Aftab pointed to a suicide on the East Coast last year in which some of the teens who had taunted the victim before her death left messages on the victims’ memorial Facebook page saying she deserved to die and that they were glad she was gone.
“The kids are so disconnected from their hearts when they’re online,” she said.
Lynn Carter, a mother in Billings, thinks the conference is a great idea. Her 11-year-old son has endured verbal bullying at his elementary school.
“That’s the stuff that hurts,” she said.
She’s frustrated that schools don’t do more to prevent it. Teachers and administrators only see the kicking and hitting, she said. They don’t see the verbal attacks on the playground or online. Her hope is the conference will give leaders the tools to better deal with the problem.
She also said parents need to get involved. They need to be watching what their kids do online and get plugged in so they check up on their Web activity.
“I know life is busy,” she said, “but those are the kinds of things you need to be paying attention to.”
Organizers are hoping to draw as diverse a crowd as possible for the conference, everyone from parents, school teachers and administrators to computer programmers, police officers and legislators. They also hope to draw from Billings’ large medical and business communities.
Over the two days, experts will lead discussions tying the community’s concerns to the realities of cyberbullying. From there they will break into groups and begin crafting plans, Aftab said. She called the model “very interactive.”
It’s one of the aspects of the conference for which Schweikert is most excited.
“This is a place where people walk away with an action plan and plans for legislation,” she said.
And it’s something at which Aftab excels.
“She knows how to bring a community together … so that everybody is working with the same information,” Schweikert said.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 406-657-1231.