Unplug kids if technology is used to cyber-bully others

Our sweet children can be very mean to each other, and their disputes often get settled at school.

School officials have long had to grapple with the fallout from bullying, even when it amounted to name-calling and the occasional shove.

But today, cell phones, texting and social networking sites amplify and expand the impact of childhood bullying. And even if the technology has advanced, children's judgment has not. They do dumb, mean things.

Just as adults get braver and more insulting when they hide behind the anonymity the Internet offers, so do children. And just as adults find a wider audience much faster for their abuse, so do the insults and hurts of children. And where are our kids most likely to meet up with their tormentors? School.

South Carolina's 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.

But the ultimate solution lies where it always has -- at home with a child's parents or guardians. How about some help for school officials? When did we cede all control to our kids?

No fundamental right to a cell phone or a Facebook account exists. Texting is not mandatory on all cell phones.

The truth is we often put cell phones in our children's hands for our own convenience.

Deborah Black, the Beaufort County School District's lead middle school counselor who works at Beaufort Middle School, says five or 10 years ago, 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.

That's the disturbing part about cyber-bullying -- how quickly and far it can spread. And using technology can lead to legal problems that aren't likely to occur to an angry teenager bent on revenge.

Black says 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.

When school police officers become aware of threats made online or through text messages, they quickly step in, said Lt. Alfredo Givens of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, who oversees the sheriff's juvenile services section and officers at several county schools.

The bottom line: We need to stay on top of what our children are doing and what is happening to them. We need to teach them to treat each other with respect. And when they abuse technology, we need to take it away from them -- even if it's inconvenient for us.