Modern-day meanness

It was the end of the day with the last day of school just around the corner when a young girl came into the office in tears. Seeking the help of one of Auburn (NY) High School’s School Resource Officers, hysteria threatened to overtake her. Officer Jim...

Cyberbullying can begin as early as a child has access to technology. Many second and third graders use the Internet and have personal cell phones. The Internet can be accessed through gaming systems (Wii, Xbox 360), Internet tablets (iPad, Android) and e-readers (Kindle, Nook), not to mention most cell phones. A 2012 National Consumers League survey shows the average age for a child to receive a cell phone is 10 years old, and only 4 percent of the parents who bought a cell phone for their child aged 8 to 12 years old purchased a basic plan that did not include texting and/or web access. The Cox Communications’ survey shows about one in five teens have engaged in sexting, while over a third of the participants had a friend that had sent or received these types of messages. A disturbing 1 in 10 sexters admitted to sending these messages to people they didn’t even know.

Is it a crime or not?

One of the biggest challenges law enforcement faces is whether or not cyberbullying is a law enforcement issue. And Aftab explains that it depends. “At the low end of the risk, no,” she states. “At the higher end, absolutely.” When there are threats of bodily harm or death, attempts to provoke attacks by radical groups or to find out who is behind the activity, it is crucial for law enforcement to be involved. One tactic of cyberbullies is to post inflammatory remarks or give personal information on websites frequented by hate groups or child molesters in hopes of inciting a retaliatory response. “There have been suicides, murders and violent assault and batteries,” says Aftab. Many state and federal laws are already on the books. There might also be non-law enforcement consequences as defined by school district policy.

Under current laws, sexting can result in a disseminating child pornography charge. Sending even a simple nude photo to a person under 17 is a felony. Due to the pervasiveness of sexting, legislators in New York are trying to change it to a misdemeanor. “Legislators are realizing that it is going on so often we can’t be charging all these kids with a felony,” states Dann. Auburn SROs expanded their role of student protectors by including cyberbullying and sexting information into their program.

Auburn Police Department

In 2000, after the tragedy at Columbine, the Auburn Police Department applied for a grant to begin an SRO program. Interacting with and educating students was part of the plan. When technology took over and social media began to be an issue, they knew they needed to add a new component to their presentations. “At the high school, we started going into the 9th grade classes to talk about the SRO program, and we realized we needed to talk about social media sites,” says Slayton. “At first it was MySpace, then Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And now SlapChat. We have to stay up on the changes in the sites these kids use to bully.” Much of the curriculum is designed based on research the officers have done. They’ve also attended numerous trainings and utilize websites such as Aftab’s Auburn officers have also created fictional social media accounts. “Every student has friended our fictitious person,” Dann explains. “It allows us to keep up on what is going on.” Slayton explains the students don’t know which is the fictional account because they friend as a social status. “Nobody wants to have ten friends when others have 1,000,” he says, “They friend us without even verifying who we are.”

Training and resources

Numerous training opportunities and resources exist to help officer understand and investigate cyberbullying and sexting. The Cyber Law Enforcement Organization (CLEO) is a network of law enforcement officers who specialize in cybercrime investigation, training other law enforcement officers and who assist cybercrime victims online. This group of “Wired Cops” is part of a team affiliated with WiredSafety, a group founded by Aftab. Training is available both to those who are interested in volunteering with CLEO and those who are just looking for some additional information about cybercrime. Aftab also offers a downloadable Stop Cyberbullying toolkit with additional information and resources. Within the last month, a Montgomery County (Pa.) task force completed a manual designed to offer best practices in prevention, response and accountability for cyberbullying and bullying. In addition, Officer Brian Kozera, a member of the task force and an SRO with Norristown (Pa.) Police Department, compiled an additional manual specifically for law enforcement.

4 Essential tips for dealing with cyberbullies:

  • Take it offline

Aftab recommends officers look at the situation as if it occurred in real life. “If someone had a picture of a minor, that would qualify as child pornography,” she says. “What laws would apply? If someone was following someone down the street saying that they are fat, what would you do? When technology becomes involved, people get confused.”