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 Slayton listened as she told her tale. She had sent a nude photo to this boy she was dating. A friend came to her and told her that it was now being sent around the school. Slayton recognized this behavior as sexting, and knew it can have severe consequences—not only for the girl—but for others involved as well. “We hustled that day and found the four individuals who it had been sent to,” he explains. “Two didn’t even have their phones turned on yet. We had them just delete anything that came from the phone number without even opening it up. We went to the boy and we explained the law to him and his guardian. There was a sense of urgency. We only had an hour.” Once people go home, he says the situation escalates as the photo is viewed, shown around and sent to more people.

The Auburn Police Department had integrated cyberbullying/sexting education into their curriculum. The students knew about the issues and who they could go to if they encountered any problems, and the officers knew the relevant laws and techniques on how to deal with it when it came up. “It shows the relationship the officer has with the students,” Sergeant Greg Dann, Auburn’s SRO supervisor states. “They were able to come to them and ask for help. When they came back and told her they were able to get to all the phones and the photo was deleted, you could see a weight was lifted. We got a phone call from the parents thanking us.”

Auburn Police Department is one of many law enforcement agencies, along with numerous school administrators, teachers, parents and community members concerned with the problems modern technology has created, especially in reference to minors.

What is it?

Many definitions exist to describe harmful and/or criminal behaviors by minors utilizing technology. Two of the most pervasive are cyberbullying and sexting. Parry Aftab, a U.S. lawyer, child advocate and cyberlaw expert, developed and runs the most popular cyberbullying prevention website online. Aftab defines cyberbullying as “any cyber-communication or publication posted or sent by a minor online, by instant message, e-mail, website, diary site, online profile, interactive game, handheld device, cell phone, game device, digital camera or video, webcam or use of any interactive device that is intended to frighten, embarrass, harass, hurt, set up, cause harm to, extort or otherwise target another minor." She further sums this up stating “Cyberbullying is when minors use digital technology as a weapon to target and hurt another minor." Important aspects of cyberbullying are it has to be between two minors, and for the most part it must be intentional.

Sexting can be a separate or integrated issue depending on what happens to the photograph. The 2009 Cox Communications Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey defined sexting as sending, receiving or forwarding sexually suggestive nude, or nearly nude, photos through text message or e-mail. In the survey, 61 percent of the sexters were between the ages of 16 to 18 while 39 percent were 13 to 15 years of age.

According to polls Aftab conducted while visiting schools in the U.S. and Canada, 85 percent of students admitted to being targeted by cyberbullies within the last year. 50 percent have heard of or seen a website/profile/quiz bashing another student in their school, and 75 percent have visited one. 40 percent have had their password stolen and changed by a cyberbully (locking them out of their own account) or had communications sent to others posing as them on the Internet or by grabbing an unattended cell phone. Although the term cyberbullying applies to anyone under 18, high school students generally don’t use this phrase. Instead it’s more accurately defined by the MTV term “digital drama.”

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.”

  • Break it into elements

“With cyberbullying...everything has to be broken into elements,” says Aftab. “Is there hacking, identity theft, or threats? The laws already cover that. If you break it out, it’s really easy and makes a lot more sense for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute. It’s like the gold chain in the bottom of your jewelry box. Until you unknot it, it’s useless.”

  • Each situation is unique

“You have to look at each situation on its own,” says Slayton. “If you don’t have access it’s hard to track. A student might come to you with 13 pages saying, ‘I’m being harassed,’ but they only show one side of it. They’ve deleted their side. You have to look at both sides.”

  • Get real

Officers must remember the seriousness. “When they put up pages about a student or post a photo and other students make comments on it, it destroys lives,” says Slayton. Aftab agrees. “It’s not just name-calling.”

Cyberbullying and sexting continue to be a problem; it’s not just sticks and stones. Technology allows kids to be meaner than any generation before. “For a Good Time Call…” on the bathroom wall is no longer limited to the few who go into the girls’ bathroom, but thousands visiting cyberspace. Fortunately, by building relationships, sharing resources and having an understanding of laws and investigation techniques, officers can more readily handle these situations when they arise. In Aftab’s polls she found only 5 percent of kids would go to their parents if they were targeted by a cyberbully. She also states that if an SRO is integrated and trusted, a child would be more likely to go to the officer for help. WiredSafety offers information on reporting cybercrimes. CLEO has an intake form for first responders to identify whether an officer should be handling an issue. Even if it does not involve a crime, Dann believes as it relates to the SRO program, cyberbullying is always a police issue. “It might not be a criminal matter,” he states. “But, it is exactly the stuff we should be dealing with. In my opinion, that’s exactly why we’re in the schools.”