Fearing for her safety, the mother of a 13-year-old Bluffton girl called authorities last month when she found comments threatening her daughter on the teen's Facebook page.
The threats were made by a group of students at H.E. McCracken Middle School in Bluffton, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report. The girl's mother told deputies Oct. 18 it wasn't the first time her daughter had received such threats.
A few days earlier, two 13-year-old students at Hilton Head Island Middle School were charged with third-degree assault and battery and disturbing schools, both misdemeanors, when they got into a fistfight in the hall. The fight was caused by comments other students posted about the two girls on Facebook, according to a sheriff's report.
Teens have been bullying and gossiping about each other for generations. But in recent years, social networking websites, cell phones and other technology have allowed them to harass their peers in new ways, experts say.
About one in five children in the United States between 11 and 18 have been a victim of cyber-bullying, according to Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. About the same number has admitted to cyber-bullying others, he said.
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyber-bullying as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Often, technology allows bullies to hide their identity.
Hinduja said harm includes emotional damage or humiliation and is not limited to physical injury. Cyber-bullying could include forwarding hurtful text messages, creating web pages to make fun of others or distributing photos taken in a place where privacy is expected, such as a locker room, he said.
A 2006 South Carolina law, called the Safe Schools Act, prohibits harassment or bullying in schools. The prohibition extends to electronic communication and stipulates that harm can be either physical or emotional.
In Beaufort County, the number of cyber-bullying incidents is difficult to quantify because there are several ways bullying can be reported to law enforcement and schools, said 14th Circuit Court Solicitor Duffie Stone. But local school officials and police say they take the threat seriously and try to prevent harassment.
PREVENTION THROUGH EDUCATION
Cyber-bullying has become prevalent among teens, according to Deborah Black, the Beaufort County School District's lead middle school counselor who works at Beaufort Middle School.
Hurtful gossip spreads much faster than it used to, she said.
Five or 10 years ago, Black said, a classroom bullying incident was limited to whoever happened to see it. Some students might have called friends to talk about it after school. Now, kids have the tools to spread the word instantly.
"You can text 100 people in 30 seconds," Black said. "It's instantaneous and it's very widespread."
Such an incident led to the arrest of a 14-year-old student at Battery Creek High School on Oct. 4, according to a sheriff's report. The student was charged with third-degree battery and assault, a misdemeanor, when she attacked another girl after that student forwarded a derogatory text message about her to other students, according to the report.
The girl who was charged told a school nurse that a week earlier, the other student had taken a picture of her, put music to it, added derogatory comments and then forwarded the photo to several other students, the report said. No charges were filed against the other student, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Raychelle Lohmann, the district's lead high school counselor, said technology allows students to avoid face-to-face confrontations.
"Cyber-bullying is an easier type of bullying for kids to do," said Lohmann, who works at Hilton Head Island High School. "It's a lot easier to slam someone by posting something online than it is to go to a kid's face and say something."
Cynthia Hayes, the district's student services officer, said all schools are required to teach bullying prevention to students as part of character-education programs. Hayes said the district's social workers also sponsored two after-school parent sessions last year on protecting children from online harassment, and individual schools also teach parents about the threat.
Lohmann said encouraging parents to monitor their children's online activities -- and in some cases, teaching them how to use social networking websites -- is a major way schools can help combat the problem.
EFFECTS IN THE CLASSROOM
Jim Shirley, principal of Hilton Head Island Middle School, said most cyber-bullying occurs away from school because cell phones aren't allowed in class and access to most social networking sites is blocked on school computers. He said that makes it difficult for schools to discipline cyber-bullying, unless cases are severe enough to be referred to law enforcement.
Nonetheless, ill effects of cyber-bullying can become a school problem, even if the harassment doesn't originate on school property or on school time.
"If it does lead to some type of action or reaction here at school, we discipline it," Shirley said. "We're not going to accept hearing those types of comments here at school."
Hinduja, of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said legal precedent suggests schools can interfere with online or other electronic harassment if it is causing students to feel unsafe at school, disrupts school or undermines the educational mission of the school. Schools must be able to demonstrate the link to school and present evidence to support any disciplinary actions taken, he said.
Both Black and Lohmann said students sometimes approach teachers or counselors when they are upset about cruel text messages or postings online.
Black said a student's parent is called if any cyber-bullying is reported, in or out of school. If the incident is serious, the student is referred to the school police officer. School employees and police must distinguish repeated harassment or serious threats from the normal conflict that is part of being a teenager, she said.
"If it's interfering with learning at the school, we try to handle it," Black said.
Hinduja said law enforcement typically is involved if the harassment includes a threat to the child's safety, coercion, sexually explicit pictures or a violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Stone said the Solicitor's Office currently is not trying any cases stemming from allegations of juvenile cyber-bullying. Charges related to cyber-bullying often fall under unlawful communications or harassment statutes. Unlawful-communications charges are threats made through any form of communication.
"Bullying is against the law no matter what," Stone said. "It's just difficult to assess because there are a number of ways it can be reported."
Although local investigators say they have seen few criminal charges from online bullying, suicides in other parts of the United States that have been tied to claims of bullying have officers on alert, said sheriff's Lt. Alfredo Givens.
"We're not seeing an abundance of documented reports on cyber-bullying, but there are parents who are concerned with the well-being of their children because of incidents in other parts of the country," he said.
Givens, who oversees the sheriff's juvenile services section and officers at several county schools, said parents often seek help from school officials, rather than law enforcement. When school police officers become aware of threats made online or through text messages, they quickly step in, Givens said.
School police officers have documented recent instances of students sending out a blitz of text messages and comments on sites such as Facebook to gossip about incidents after an argument or fight has already occurred, Givens said.
"Officers are bringing the parents into school after these incidents and telling them about it," he said. "We want to let parents know -- before an incident escalates -- if any of the students' actions contained elements of a crime, they could be charged."
Givens said it's critical school administrators and school police officers become aware of cyber-bullying before the problem results in students harming each other or themselves.
"You never know when it gets to a point where a student may need some kind of counseling, or a child's parent may not even know it's happening," he said. "We need to be aware of any bullying, online or otherwise, going on so we can get to the bottom of it and stop it before it becomes a serious problem."