The lunchtime spat ended as quickly as it had begun — or so the Largo Middle School seventh-grader thought until she got home and logged on to her MySpace page.
"I'm going to drag you up and down the hallway," read a startled Jessica Irizarry, 14. "B----, I'm going to f--- you up."
Jessica reported the incident to the school resource officer the next day. Six weeks later, she still worries that she's not heard the end of it.
"I know how easy it is for kids to bully each other," she said. "Especially when they don't have to do it face to face."
Pinellas and Hillsborough school officials know, too. That's why they've gone to extra lengths this year to crack down on cyberbullying, sometimes referred to as online social cruelty or electronic bullying.
Last fall, both districts revamped their antibullying policies, adding teeth to their prohibitions on the bullying of any K-12 student or employee. The policies provide for anonymous reporting of violations and spell out consequences for any student or employee who commits bullying.
The new polices include clauses that cover cyberbullying and cyberstalking, because district officials agree those forms of bullying are simply part of the bigger issue.
"If a child has access to a cell phone or a computer, there's the potential for it to happen," said Jan Urbanski, Pinellas' supervisor for Safe and Drug Free Schools.
Cyberbullying starts as early as elementary school, Urbanski said. It runs rampant in middle school, and continues to haunt kids through high school. While it generally originates from home computers, it almost always ends up on campus.
It's on the rise in school districts across the country. Nationally, online bullies are far more common than sexual predators, said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Closer to home, a 2008 Florida Department of Education report showed that one in 10 Hillsborough middle school students reported being cyberbullied within 30 days of being surveyed. The numbers were slightly higher in Pinellas.
School resource officers like Largo Middle's Christopher Burke don't need statistics to tell them cyberbullying is a problem. Burke hears from at least one student a week who has been threatened online.
"The threats and the language would curl your hair," Burke said. "Kids are doing all this in the safety of their own homes. They let it fly."
As with face-to-face bullying, the effects of cyberbullying can be devastating, Burke said. Some kids lose sleep or become withdrawn. Others stop coming to school or drop out.
They even commit suicide. That's what happened in the case of Jeffrey Johnston, a 15-year-old Cape Coral student who died in 2005 after being harassed over the Internet. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act in June in his honor, which mandated that districts overhaul their antibullying policies by Dec. 1 of last year.
In response to the new legislation, Pinellas launched the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in nine middle schools and four elementary schools this year. The program, which aims to debunk the popular notion that being a bully or a bully's target is a normal part of growing up, tries to teach students how to be more courageous in the face of bullying without bullying back.
The district also is relying on Family Service Centers, a Pinellas County agency that visits schools hoping to convince kids that bullying, whether face-to-face or online, is never okay.
Lizzie Fults, who was one of dozens of Largo Middle School eighth-graders who heard the presentation last week, hopes her classmates were listening. The 14-year-old, who is underweight for her age, has been fending off insults like "You're so skinny" and "Why don't you go in the bathroom so you can throw up" since fourth grade.
In her experience, Lizzie said, girls get bullied more frequently than boys. But she also thinks girls are more likely to cyberbully, because "on MySpace, you can be tough."
Urbanski, the Pinellas supervisor, agrees that kids are more likely to be cruel when they don't have to witness firsthand the reaction of the one they're tormenting, and that they often don't even know they're doing anything wrong.
"We have to increase their awareness," she said. "If we continue to do that we'll have more kids saying, 'This is not okay.' "