By Olivia Koester
Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, Jessica Logan, Jamey Rodemeyer, Amanda Todd.
Growing up in different parts of the United States and Canada, these students didn’t know each other, but now their names are linked.
All five teenagers committed suicide after enduring harassment online or via text message.
Roosevelt Middle School technology teacher William Powell told the disturbing stories of all five students when he led a recent information night for Anoka-Hennepin School District 11 families.
The free session aimed to teach families how to help protect themselves from online predators, keep from revealing too much information online, address cyberbullying at home and more.
The districtwide information night is the first of its kind for Anoka-Hennepin.
Powell has led similar events at individual schools, all with relatively poor attendance, he said. “It was really nice to have a bigger audience,” he said of the approximately 200 parents and students who came to learn more about online etiquette, or netiquette.
Following the same curriculum he and other district teachers use to teach middle school students about the dangers of the Internet, Powell spoke about online predators.
Usually, they aren’t old men pretending to be younger, swooping in to abduct children, as the stereotype dictates.
Ninety-nine percent of online predators are men older than age 26, but most often, these men are honest about their age, building a trust level with kids over time, according to Powell.
Victims are typically 13- to 15-year-old girls, like Julie, the subject of a powerful video shown in Anoka-Hennepin middle schools.
In the short video, Julie describes the Internet as a knife: “It’s very helpful, but it can also cut you,” an assessment with which Powell agrees.
Julie met Tom online when she was 13; he was 56. Soon, the two were instant messaging three to six hours each day. Julie ran away to be with Tom, knowing his age, but little else about his true character.
Law enforcement caught them and Tom will spend 25 years in prison. But that doesn’t stop him from getting to Julie. Behind bars, he sent her a letter, blaming her for everything that happened and threatening to kill her.
Because there are so many ways to connect to the Internet – computer, tablet, phone, etc. – it is difficult to fully monitor children’s online activities, but there are steps parents can take, warning signs they can look for, Powell said.
Receiving gifts, calling unknown numbers, minimizing the screen as soon as someone enters the room, rejecting family and friends and becoming wildly upset when they cannot go online are all signs that children may have an unhealthy online relationship. Parents should know their children’s passwords and should not feel guilty performing “spot checks,” Powell said.
A 22-year-old from Michigan, Alicia Lynch made the unfortunate decision to dress up as a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing on Halloween this year. It was a mistake, but one that cost her even more was posting a picture of herself in costume on Twitter, Powell said.
Lynch, like many young people, posted a celebratory picture of her first driver’s license years before the incident. Some people, extremely outraged by her costume and now equipped with her address, began sending hate mail to her home. Also uncovered were sexually suggestive photos Lynch had taken, which were circulated to people across the globe when her costume provoked the Internet’s ire.
Lynch lost her job and continues to receive death threats.
“She made one mistake and … it just unraveled her life,” Powell said, not excusing Lynch’s poor decision, but pointing out that posting evidence of it online amplified her troubles.
Many students would not think twice about posting pictures of a new driver’s license or class schedule, according to Powell. “It’s a really big moment, but … we don’t want that digital footprint to eventually hurt you down the road,” Powell said.
Students should never give out their passwords, location, school, address, phone number – information that’s extremely personal and could allow a stranger to track them down.
Setting privacy settings is key, Powell said. He also suggests cleaning up friend lists periodically on sites like Facebook.
Powell did not reference specific sites too often in his presentation, hoping to provide a general framework for online safety since new sites pop up all the time.
“You need to have your family plan in place” and tailor that plan to your child’s age and maturity level, he said.
Years ago, when Powell was a student in health class, one boy would, day-after-day, make fun of his ears.
The bully tormented him, but knowing that the pain was isolated to one class period made the taunting easier to endure. When the bell rang, he could escape.
“We know that cyberbullying is following students home,” Powell said of how times have changed.
Online and through text messages, bullies can continue to send hurtful messages long after the final bell rings. Bullies often circulate private conversations or embarrassing posts to groups of students so that the whole school is in on the teasing, rather than a class of 25, for example.
In the last 10 years, students have spent an additional three hours each day interacting with digital media, according to Joel VerDuin, chief technology and information officer for District 11.
So, opportunity is ripe for cyberbullying.
Powell urged parents to report cyberbullying to the websites over which hurtful sentiments are transmitted, to school administration and teachers and to the police if it is particularly bad.
If parents see bullying, they should save the evidence, taking screenshots.
Katrina Robinson and Jill Bornes, both parents of elementary students in the district, attended the information night to learn more about Internet safety.
“I’m glad they’re showing that to the kids,” Robinson said when the program was through, but both women think that elementary students could benefit from the curriculum, too.
“I think it would be good for everybody,” Robinson said.
Currently, Anoka-Hennepin sixth- and eighth-graders study full units about Internet safety, Powell said, although it’s certainly a component of coursework in other grade levels.
To view videos shown at the session and learn more about online safety, visit www.netsmartz.org.
Olivia Koester is at [email protected]