Countering cyber bullies

Students who use text messages or e-mails to harass schoolmates could lose their driver's licenses under a new Medford School Board policy
North Medford High School students Madison Poncia, left, and Tanika Woolfolk take a break from studying during summer school, held at South Medford High. They say cyber bullying is common and praise a new policy banning it.Bob Pennell

Cyber bullying is one of the most common offenses Ernie Whiteman investigates as a school resource officer in the Medford School District.

"Bullying is no longer just a face-to-face thing like it used to be," Whiteman said. "It's predominantly text messages that are harassing or threatening, a message on MySpace or an instant message."

To help combat online harassment, school districts across the state are passing policies specifically prohibiting cyber bullying.

The Medford School Board adopted such a policy on Tuesday.

One of the penalties students could face for using an electronic communication device to harass, intimidate or bully someone else is suspension of their driver's license, according to the new policy.

The district would have to ask the Oregon Department of Transportation for the license suspensions, and the state agency would make the final decision.

School officials hope the penalty, which is used for other types of bullying offenses as well as for cases of chronic truancy, will serve as a deterrent against cyber bullying.

Oregon House Bill 2637, passed last year, requires school districts to explicitly ban cyber bullying, which across the nation has been linked to at least one teenage suicide.

"Cyber bullying is clearly not a theoretical problem," said House Majority Leader Dave Hunt, D-Clackamas, who sponsored the bill. "It happens every week of every school year around our students. We need to make sure people know how serious it is and make sure school districts have consistent policies on it."

About 52 percent of high school students admitted to bullying others online, according to a 2006-07 national survey of 150,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 by i-SAFE National Assessment Center, a nonprofit foundation in Carlsbad, Calif., with a mission to educate the public on Internet safety.

Whiteman said he investigates one to two cases of cyber bullying per week.

"We tell kids if someone sends them a message that offends them that they should reply that they don't appreciate the comment and would appreciate them not sending any more messages," Whiteman said. "If the person continues to send messages, then we'll investigate."

In some cases, harassment charges can be brought against a cyber bully or a menacing charge if the victim fears for his or her safety, Whiteman said.

Tanika Woolfolk, a senior at North Medford High School, said cyber bullying is common.

"Some students start rumors about people or put people down," Woolfolk said. "I think it's good to have these types of rules. There is so much hatred out there. We need to stop it.

"It makes kids feel safer just knowing someone will stand up for them."

In the past, the Medford district had used its umbrella policy on bullying, harassment and intimidation to crack down on cyber bullying.

Spelling out the ban on cyber bullying and threatening to suspend driving privileges sends out a clear message that school officials are on the watch for such behavior, officials said.

"It makes you more responsible because if you want to keep your license you're not going to do anything bad," said Madison Poncia, a senior at North Medford. "It's like when you get in trouble, and your parent takes away your phone or computer."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.


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