“I wish you would just help us all out by dying.”
That’s the end of a lengthy Snapchat message allegedly sent by two Beatrice Middle School students to a former BMS student who now lives 280 miles away in Marshalltown, Iowa.
The rise of cell phones and new technology at our fingertips has launched today's youth into a brave new world when it comes to communication, but the apps on those phones and devices have also made bullying all the more efficient.
Pat Dugan’s family moved to Marshalltown for this school year when he took on a new position at work. For almost two years prior to the move, he said one of his daughters had problems with bullies in school, and she suffered from severe anxiety because of it.
A decade ago, moving several hours away would have meant the beginning of a new chapter, but now, thanks to technology, past conflicts can bubble to the surface when least expected.
Dugan’s daughter received a message over Snapchat last week that called her "pathetic" and "useless" and encouraged her to kill herself.
She had an anxiety attack at school, Dugan said, and he made the trip back to Beatrice this week to discuss it with Beatrice Middle School staff and law enforcement.
“To send something that vile to someone that's no longer in your life, you sit there as a parent and say, 'why,'” Dugan said.
So, what can you do when there’s a digital conflict going on that crosses state lines?
Dugan said it’s not like the old days when you could knock on a parent’s door and hash things out. It’s a different world that kids are living in today, and parents are struggling to keep up.
School officials are also struggling, said Beatrice Middle School Principal John Jarosh. For privacy reasons, the school couldn’t legally comment on Dugan’s daughter, but Jarosh did say that technology makes it easier for kids to be mean to each other without necessarily having to face the consequences.
“It's difficult,” Jarosh said. “Kids are smart. If they want to pick on someone, they can be pretty smart about it.”
BMS counselor Angie Vogel said that any time a student reports bullying at the school, it is investigated.
They check in with the students involved, she said, and try to find witnesses. Even if there are corroborating witnesses, it can be hard to prove. If it’s on a phone, it can be easier. However, with apps like Snapchat, which permanently deletes photos and messages after they are seen, bullying can be more difficult to prove.
Getting to the root of what’s actually happening can be a challenge as well, Vogel said. Is it bullying, or is it a conflict between two parties? Bullying, she said, is one-sided. It’s mean on purpose and it happens more than once.
“Generally, what I find in the middle school is it's not bullying, it's a conflict,” Vogel said. “Where you've done something mean and I've done something mean in return, and now we're in an argument.”
Vogel said the best way to figure out what’s happening is to get both parties in a room together and have them talk through it.
Sometimes that doesn’t work, though. Sometimes kids don’t want to be in the same room together, and sometimes it’s just an uncomfortable situation. In those cases, the school teaches kindness, empathy and making good decisions.
But bullying itself is tricky, said BMS Assistant Principal Pam Henning.
“There's usually some kind of underlying issue for someone to be a bully,” Henning said. “There's not something going well in their life and they're getting power by control in other ways, so we look for what's causing that person to do those kinds of things.”
If a bully is harassing one person, she said, chances are he or she is probably bullying others. Middle school is a tough time for everyone, bullies included.
If things get to a point where threats are made or saying mean things starts crossing the line into dangerous territory, that’s when a school resource officer like Tim Price gets involved. Price is an officer with the Beatrice Police Department, and a resource for the middle school, especially when it comes to conflict resolution.
“With school resource officers, we've got a triad effect,” Price said. “The first thing we do is kind of an informal counselor. The second thing we do is an informal teacher. The third thing we do is law enforcement.”
Unless an incident happens on school grounds, there’s not really reason for suspension or other action, legal or disciplinary, Henning said.
If someone sent something on a smartphone or over one of the school’s Chromebooks, they have ways of finding out when it was sent. Otherwise, it’s not often that it rises to the severity of an actionable offence.
“The touchy part is when it happens off school grounds,” Jarosh said. “If that happens, we have to show it made a significant disruption in the school day. Did it disrupt school? How many people did it disrupt? Was it a significant disruption?”
That might not be a satisfying answer, but it’s what they have to work with at the moment, Jarosh said.
The vast majority of students want a positive experience at school, he said, and schools would much rather work with students toward a resolution rather than simply handing out punishments.
Every situation is different, Jarosh said. Kids in middle school are just starting to figure out who they are, what their interests are and where they fit in.
Things that happen in middle school aren’t going to be the things that stick with you for your entire life, Vogel said. It’s about finding a solution that makes school a comfortable place for everyone. Mediation can help that.
“How can we move forward at this point,” Vogel said. “We can't change the past, but how can we move forward and forgive and move on? Because to continue to just live in that hurt isn't good for anybody.”
Dugan said his whole family is indeed living in that hurt.
He urges parents to keep track of what their kids are doing on their phones and computers. For his part, he’s taken away Facebook and Snapchat from all of his children after his daughter's latest brush with bullying.
"They don't like it and its not fair to them," Dugan admitted. "But I'm their father and I have to do whatever I can to protect them."
It’s been hard to deal with, he said, and he’s not altogether satisfied with the outcome. Even if punishments or consequences were handed down, Jarosh said, they legally can’t tell parents what they were and can’t even tell them what other parties might have been involved.
“I'm not a big crier,” Dugan said. “I was raised by a stern Irish Catholic dad, but I'm sitting there ... and I'm reading this and just tears. Because you just feel for your kid so much.”