Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Schools build awareness about cyberbullying

ST. PETERSBURG

Students at John Hopkins Middle School found ways to address their fears about bullying at a panel discussion Tuesday, one of a number of events marking Cyberbullying Awareness Week.

"They told us not to just ignore it and sometimes you should tell someone," said Brianna Walker, a seventh-grader at the school who picked up on the week's theme, "Stop. Block. Tell."

Experts on cyberbullying urge teens to immediately stop a bullying conversation on their cellphones or computers, block the bully from sending more messages and tell a trusted adult about the problem.

Among U.S. teens who use the Internet, instances of cyberbullying increased from 6 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2010, according to the Youth Internet Safety Survey.

Gulf Coast Giving, a nonprofit group that promotes volunteer work, organized the week of awareness activities at a number of schools. The discussion at John Hopkins was sponsored by Verizon Wireless.

The panel included Carmen Brandy, a victim of bullying and aspiring country singer; Detective Jerry Luttmann, school resource officer for Safety Harbor Middle School; Donna Faye Witsell, advocate and mother of a bullying victim; and four teen panelists.

Carmen, 15, spoke of the taunting she faced at a private middle school while living in Safety Harbor. A friendship with another girl led to miscommunication, then taunting.

"It was a really small private school, so you'd have a total of maybe 10 girls in your class," Carmen said in an interview. "I wasn't even too familiar with the things that they were calling me."

The taunting became so bad she attempted suicide, cutting herself. Carmen left the school and healed with help from therapy and her music. Before the panel discussion, she strummed an acoustic guitar, singing lyrics that echoed her painful past.

"She was open about the situation and wasn't afraid to say how she felt," said Martaysha Holmes, a John Hopkins seventh-grader.

Luttmann, stationed at Safety Harbor Middle School, said he is in constant communication with children and parents regarding cyberbullying. He emphasized to students that telling an adult, a parent or teacher, was the best solution.

Safety Harbor students come forward to talk about inappropriate pictures on social media such as Facebook and Instagram, he said. They often discuss bullying or a troubled household.

"Some come in the office, even about abuse, and talk about that," Luttman said. "It's very beneficial to see students come in and actually talk to you and actually like you."

Luttmann frequently gives talks on bullying awareness. His PowerPoint presentation takes listeners from the beginning of the bullying act to the potential for it to lead to suicide. School resource officers in Pinellas have been encouraged to spread his message.

For years, Florida law has allowed schools to crack down on bullying and harassment that occurs on school property or uses school equipment. That changed this year with a new state law that allows school officials to enforce the same rules off campus when cyberbullying attacks affect a school.

The Pinellas County School Board changed its bullying and harassment policy on Sept. 10 to comply with the law. The policy now reads that schools may intervene, even off campus, if bullying "substantially disrupts the education process or orderly operation of a school."

Hope Witsell was 13 years old when she took her life in 2009. The Ruskin teen sent a nude photo to a boy at Beth Shields Middle School, which circulated to nearby schools. Students tormented her with verbal abuse.

"There are no boundaries. It affects everyone, everywhere," her mother, Donna Witsell, said. "There is no reason in this world why a child should be pushed to a point where they have these extreme, extreme hurtful feelings."

Witsell fights "bullycide," a term used to address suicide caused by peer abuse. She began an advocacy group, Warriors for Hope Outreach Ministry.

Luttmann tells students to take down inappropriate posts on the Internet and call their parents from his office.

"As long as you explain and educate children, they understand it," Luttmann said. "They're kids. We all understand that. But at the same time, they're old enough to understand right and wrong."

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