Attorney General Matt Denn’s job is to prosecute bad guys, including cyber bad guys. But cyber bullying, he says, is a uniquely complex problem. Much of the bullying is done anonymously, so no one is sure who the bad guy is. Even victims may not know. What’s more, they are often reluctant to report the bullying. Adults are usually unaware of a bullying situation until it spirals out of control.
Communication between adults is also a problem.
“Some of the state’s largest high schools were reporting zero instances of bullying, and that’s almost impossible,” Denn says. “Those administrators may not have wanted to compile data that makes the school look bad.”
But underreporting is flouting the law, specifically House Bill 268, which requires school officials to report all instances of bullying to the Department of Education. It is one of two laws passed in 2012 that, in addition to several other efforts, composed the attorney general’s anti-bullying campaign.
The attorney general then, the late Beau Biden, was passionate about protecting children from predators, including bullies. The Beau Biden Foundation continues that work. Denn does so from his office. In 2012, when Denn was lieutenant governor, he worked hand in hand with Biden on anti-bullying strategies. One of their efforts was to hold a series of statewide public hearings where parents, educators and students spoke about the challenges of combating bullying.
What emerged, Denn says, is a Catch-22. Parents want schools to educate students about bullying, to prevent it and to discipline students who do it. Schools want parents to do the same. A lot of cyber bullying happens at home, long after school hours and off school property, so isn’t that the domain of parents?
School officials say that even the best-intentioned parents are usually unaware of their kids’ online behavior. Mark Holodick, superintendent of Brandywine School District, has notified many parents about their children’s bullying activities. “The most common response is, ‘My child would never do that,’” says Holodick. “But cyber bullies have parents, so someone’s kid is doing it.”
The anonymity that cloaks cyber bullies is also deployed by what may be an even bigger threat: sexual predators online. That danger is so pervasive that, in October, Gov. Jack Markell created the Delaware Cyber Security Advisory Council. The interagency group works with the Delaware Department of Technology and Information to provide security for the government, businesses, schools and kids. James Collins, chief information officer of both DTI and the advisory council, says online predators are a graver problem than protecting businesses. Hackers may be able to steal data, but predators can steal kids.
Sexual predation starts, Collins says, with kids’ digital footprints. Posting photos, checking in at local stores and restaurants, even publishing music playlists gives predators information about kids.
“That information allows sexual predators to groom young people and form relationships with them,” Collins says. “Say a kid posts something about having a bad day at school or a fight with his parents. The predator can take the kid’s side and commiserate with him to gain sympathy and trust. If that predator knows where you hang out after school, when you’re alone and what time your parents get home from work, then we have the blueprint for a big problem.”
Collins is father of a 14-year-old girl, so he knows that telling kids not to post too much information is like telling them not to breathe. Trying to restrict kids’ social media access is often met with resistance, if not a fight. Too bad, Collins says. He laid down the law for his daughter a long time ago. He installed software on her mobile devices and computer that allows her to view only age-appropriate content. Collins and his wife have passwords to all of their daughter’s devices and accounts. They follow her social media accounts to see who she follows and who follows her. They also monitor her messages. “We even do random shakedowns,” Collins says. “We’ll be sitting at home and I’ll ask to see her computer to check her logs and history.”
If that seems extreme, Collins says it is the least parents should do to protect kids from pedophiles and bullies. Vigilance is required, Collins believes, so that kids know they will be responsible for their online behavior. On that, Denn and Collins are in agreement. Part of the reason Denn wants to improve the reporting of bullying incidences is to send a clear message that bullies will be caught, apprehended and punished. Denn says someone is already doing that: Aaron Selekman.
Selekman is not a cyber expert. He is an expert on tweens. As principal of H.B. du Pont Middle School in Hockessin, Selekman is at ground zero for bullying, so he has formed a multipronged strategy to combat it. First comes the educational component. “We engage the students as much as possible with positive messages of what we want to see,” he says, “and we emphasize that they have the power to make good choices.”
To help apprehend kids who make bad choices, Selekman instituted a “see something, say something” policy. Saying something, he says, is not the same as tattling. It’s coming to the aid of the person being bullied.
“If we’ve done our job in instilling a sense of right and wrong and educating them about what it feels like to be the target of a bully, then they will tell us about situations they are aware of so we can intervene,” Selekman says. Many students have done that, bringing school officials printed pages of social media conversations that cross into bullying.
As for that cloak of anonymity, Selekman and his staff have ripped it to shreds by launching investigations into usernames, both real and fake.
“We go into a classroom, hold up a piece of paper and say, ‘This is someone’s online chat, and it is a violation of our code of conduct. We identified all of the usernames. There will be repercussions.’” What those repercussions are depends on the infraction, but they all include sessions with school counselors. “We have to punish—and teach,” Selekman says.
Where the system hits glitches is in reporting to parents. Selekman says his parents aren’t notified automatically. Holodick instituted a different policy for Brandywine School District. “Parents are notified right away—all of them,” he says. Parents sometimes go to school to participate in mediation between the bully and bullied.
Like Denn, Holodick sees parents as key allies in the anti-bullying campaign.
“The most effective response I’ve seen is where parents’ eyes are opened to the problem,” he says. “We help them put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again.”
Denn has taken other measures to bridge the parent-school communication gap and improve schools’ reporting of bullying incidences. His office conducts random audits of statistics, and he created a state ombudsman position as a liaison between parents and schools. That ombudsman reports directly to Denn, who is notified about every bullying call made to his office.
“The bigger challenge is to change the culture so that young people are less inclined to do this in the first place,” Denn says. “That is more important and more difficult. Broadly speaking, you do that by creating a culture of tolerance and inclusion—and kindness. A lot of successful efforts have been student-driven programs, which are not perceived as adults telling kids what to do. I’ve seen individual schools do a good job with this.
“We need to figure out at a state level what works,” he says. “It may be different in high schools than middle schools. We’re starting to look at that. But if bullying is going to change, a lot of that change has to come from parents teaching kids what is OK and not. That’s where it really starts.”