Local law enforcement and school officials are hoping to increase awareness about online harassment after an alleged cyber-bullying case has landed a teenage girl in the criminal court system.
A district judge issued a court order last week banning an Aspen High School student from using Facebook, Twitter or other electronic means to talk about a classmate she allegedly victimized online.
The conditions are part of a mandatory restraining order issued by Judge Gail Nichols on the teen girl, who is likely facing three criminal charges related to the alleged online bullying.
“If you’re in the hall and you pass each other,” Judge Nichols instructed the girl at a brief juvenile court hearing last Monday, “just pass each other.”
Urging the girl to obey the order until her next court date, and advising her that she could face more charges if she does not, the judge said, “We’re trying to get you out of this jam.”
The allegations in this case arose as national concerns about online bullying have heightened, following the September suicide of a gay New Jersey college freshman who classmates had allegedly outted online.
In Aspen, school administrators and local law enforcement are increasing their outreach to students and parents about cyber-bullying. Aspen police officer Tina Schairer, who covers the schools on her beat, last year introduced online safety and harassment education to her slate of programs for students and parents at Aspen High.
Local police traditionally talk to students about issues like date rape and sexual harassment with professionals from the battered women’s advocacy agency Response and the Aspen Counseling Center. Last year Schairer added a portion devoted to internet safety issues. That includes warning youngsters about posting embarrassing pictures of people on social networking sites like Facebook, making fake profile pages to tease others, or writing unkind things about them.
This fall, she’s extended the program to include 5th graders and middle school students.
“I was passionate about the cyber stuff,” Schairer said, “because [the kids] have the idea that ‘bullying’ is just pushing somebody into a locker or saying something to them. I feel like we’ve been ahead of the curve.”
Last year in a presentation at the high school’s parent-teacher night, Schairer included a 20 minute segment on internet issues. She said the positive responses she got from concerned parents led her to expand it for a more intensive information session this year at a Dec. 7 parent night.
She’s focusing on raising parental awareness, she said, of what signs to look out for — both to find if your child is being bullied, or if your child is doing the bullying.
“A lot of parents don’t know how to identify it,” Schairer said, “because it’s so much different now [from when they were teenagers]. “Everything is technology now — it’s Facebook and it’s texting. . . In my day, it was just passing notes.”
She is quick to add, though, that she has not observed a prevalent culture of online harassment among Aspen kids.
“We have great kids here overall,” she said.
The recent case that has landed in the criminal realm, Schairer said, resulted from a teen victim using defense tools she has been advocating.
“We teach the kids to use block/ban functions,” she said, referring to online social networking privacy settings, “to save the evidence if something does happen, and to tell an adult. . . This was a victim who was just fed up. It’s so brave of somebody to do that.”
Normally, she said, internet harassment cases among school kids here are dealt with by “mediating on a level below law enforcement,” with the help of guidance counselors and administrators.
In the recent case, it’s unclear why the district attorney’s office opted to bring criminal charges. Law enforcement officials have declined to comment specifically on the allegations in the case, and the clerks at the Pitkin County Courthouse did not release the court file on it last week. The charges could have resulted from an especially severe nature of harassment or the growing national conversation this fall about online bullying’s dangers, or other factors.
Of the alleged Aspen High cyber bully, Schairer said, “She’s a great kid. She just made a bad choice.”
She is due back in juvenile court Dec. 6.