Schools fighting ‘teenage terrorism’

District leaders say cyberbullying growing as a problem during summer months

Bullying isn’t just a problem for schools to solve when classes start; cyberbullying in particular festers in summer months, area superintendents said.

“It happens over the summer, and it comes back to us in September,” Portage Area Superintendent Eric Zelanko said.

“We spend maybe between 10 and 14 hours per week with cyberbullying that occurs outside the school day,” he said.

Zelanko calls cyberbullying “teenage terrorism,” which is much more difficult to deal

with compared to general bullying.

“The victim of the (cyber)bullying really isn’t sure who is doing it. They might suspect but can’t prove it and neither can we,” Zelanko said. “They come to school not knowing who or when this can happen. I’ve had parents tell me their child blocked an account only to have that person create a new one that is unblocked.”

“I really hope we can raise awareness to this problem. Parents need to know what could be happening with their children,” he said. “They could be victims or the bully. All too often these kids say nothing until it is out of hand.”

School districts in Pennsylvania have cyberbullying policies, but it remains mostly a matter for police, school district solicitor Carl Beard said. Beard’s law firm provides legal counsel to a majority of districts in Blair County and many districts across central Pennsylvania.

“The problem we often encounter is things that happen in a school setting we have more control over. Things that occur outside of a school setting, for example, texting, Snapchat, Insta­gram, Facebook, could rise to level of cyberbullying, but we are not always responsible for activity that happens outside of the school setting,” he said.

While punishing students for cyberbullying is generally out of school districts’ jurisdiction, according to Beard, he said cases are handled individually.

“If a kid says I’m afraid to come to school, the school wouldn’t say it’s not their problem,” Beard said.

State law gives discretion to schools to expand their jurisdiction to include off-campus cyberbullying, but Beard said it’s normally impossible for schools to police off-campus activity.

“In a lot of cases where you start off with cyberbullying, we often encourage parents to contact local police authorities on those issues,” he said.

A 2015 state law made cyberbullying a third-degree misdemeanor. However, Altoona police Sgt. Ben Jones said reports are few.

“Most of cyberbullying seems to be taken care of between parents,” Jones said. “Most calls we get in relation to cybercrime has to do with inappropriate pictures sent by young men and women on public sites,” he said.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of complaints about cyberbullying. In today’s day and age, people are able to block people on social media outlets,” he said.

It takes diligent parenting to monitor cyberbullying, Altoona Area Super­intendent Charles Prijatelj said.

“When I was a kid, the term ‘go outside and play’ was a fact. You had to go out and play. The whole neighborhood came together; we’d play ball games. Were we all saints? No. Did we treat each other well all the time? No, but at the same time, we had to get along because we were all we had,” he said.

It’s a different society today.

“Today, I get my Xbox out and I’m playing with kids across the globe, and it’s fantastic. But at the same time some of the language and the way we interact online is just downright offensive. It’s not civil, it’s not courteous to have some 8-year-old dropping the F-bomb like some little crazy Marine on steroids. It’s just the nature of where things have gone to,” he said.

“Imagine the kids when they are 7, 8 years old and mom gives them a cellphone; they get access to computer and Xbox; and it’s all in their room. We are creating hermits, and their only interaction is yelling obscenities at each other online,” he said.

Zelanko said access to social media is prohibited at school, but once students leave for the day, all bets are off. Zelanko said he has seen screenshots of inappropriate postings when parents reach out to the school for help.

“Parents are frustrated, angry and just want the pain their child is experiencing to go away,” he said.

Demerits, detention, suspension and possibly placement at an alternative education setting are all possible punishments for a bullying violation.

As a result, Zelanko said, students who cyberbully outside school “toe the line” during the school day while their victim suffers.

“You have a kid in a school sitting in the class with bullies, and they are perfect little angels. Then it happens online when class ends,” he said.

“All school districts are all dealing with it. People are looking at school districts and saying ‘Fix it.’ But I don’t know that we can,” he said.

There may be one thing, Zelanko said, that may sound easy but may be more difficult for parents to accept.

“Parents can’t just give these kids phones,” he said.