Cyber-bullying has become a problem in Petersburg. According to the school district, there have been several cases of local children receiving abusive messages from their peers or posting them on popular social networking sites. Cyberbullying is common worldwide and Petersburg is no exception. The district has an anti-bullying policy and school officials say they are trying to address the online bullying issue. However, their authority is limited to school grounds and school-sponsored activities……..while cyber-bullying is not. Matt Lichtenstein reports:

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“We believe it’s here, we believe it’s a state and national illness, phenomenon and we are going to be proactive in making sure kids are safe,” says District Superintendent Rob Thomason. He says, in a school survey early last February, 15 percent of local students reported being bullied over the internet.

“Since that time,” he says, “we’ve had youngsters come forward with proof and evidence, printouts as it were of cyber-bulling incidents and we’ve been trying to react to those.”

The issue has become prominent in the national news the past several years with reports of online harassment leading to teen suicides. Most recently, in Florida, police arrested two girls who allegedly cyber-bullied a 12-year-old peer before she took her own life.

While it has not come to that in Petersburg, Thomason says his staff has seen a several effects among kids who have reported being bullied online.

“Fear, anxiety, a lot of anxiety, sleeplessness because they’re laying awake thinking about this things because, again, kids cannot deal with this kind of stuff, Powerlessness, and that’s where youngsters begin to think about doing harmful things when they get into those emotions; fear, anxiety and powerlessness,” says Thomason.

The district has an anti-bullying and harassment policy that includes language on cyber-bullying. According to Thomason, administrators will enforce the policy when they learn about a cyber-bullying incident on campus just like any other type of bullying. However, as he points out, cyber-bullying is not limited to campus. So it’s not as simple as enforcing school policy.

“I believe we have a very safe school. That doesn’t mean one youngster can’t do something to another youngster at some point in time. That’s human nature. And I don’t have a percentage but I would wager that the majority of this kind of texting and stuff happens outside of school or during lunch when they’re off campus only because the other parts of the time the kids are in classes and we’re teaching and they’re learning and we know what they’re doing and it’s a hard call,” says Thomason.

District technology coordinator Jon Kludt-painter says local cases have so far involved what he calls “off the mainline sites” where users can post anonymously. They include ASKFM, INSTAGRAM, VINE and others.

According to, Kludt-painter, the school can block problem sites, at least on the campus network, “Many of these sites, all the ones that we find out about, that are causing students issues, whether they come to us and they report, we do filter those out under the Child Internet Protection Act in our internet filter. So, if they happen to be using those outside the school day, obviously we cant filter that but within the school environment, these sites are filtered and blocked.”

However, the district can’t block cell service. So, students who have smart phones, and many of them d, can still access those sites on campus.

The district has let Petersburg Police know about the cyber-bullying incidents. Chief Kelly Swihart says, right now, the department does not believe the behavior rises to the level of a criminal offense, one that would prompt an investigation, “But the school is keeping us in the loop. They’re keeping us up to speed on the information as they get it and we’re trying to partner with them to help solve the problem.”

Swihart says there are no cyber-bullying statutes on the books in Alaska. Such behavior can sometimes rise to the level of harassment or stalking under state law, according to Swihart, but he says in general, it does not. Still, he sees it as a serious concern, “You know it really hinders people’s ability to lead a peaceful, stress-free life and I don’t think some people really realize the stress they inflict on folks when they engage in these cyber-bulling activities.”

Online-bullying and harassment can be particularly insidious since postings can remain in cyberspace in perpetuity and then spread from site to site and unlike the school-house bullying of decades past, the abuse does not stop at a student’s front door.

“I could be sitting at home as a teen on the weekend and be bullied on facebook while in my pajamas while sitting in bed and its potentially harder to escape from,” says
Jeigh Stanton-Gregor, co-owner of True-North Counseling and Consultation in Petersburg where he has counseled kids who’ve experienced online bullying.

Stanton-Gregor says they should not have to carry it on their own, “Maybe tell more of your peers. Tell your family. Tell adults, all of that. But I think even more importantly, I look to parents. I think the parents of the kids who are actually doing the cyber-bullying. I think the more involved parents are in terms of their kids social media and social media access, the more you can control and limit some of these behaviors. Many parents have no idea, unfortunately, what their kids actually are doing with their phones, online, etc. and by becoming more aware of that, whether it be from the bully or the bullied. The more involved parents are the more kids feel supported.”

That’s a key message for school officials as well and they’re encouraging parent involvement through a newspaper ad, school website postings, and some upcoming meetings on digital literacy.

The district’s Kludt painter says his main concern is parents not knowing and not having the tools to respond to the problem at home, “And I think the digital literacy nights that we’ll have soon to take a pro-active effort on educating parents on here’s an example of a contract you can have with your youngster. Here’s some action plans. Here’s what other parents have talked about that work in their family and just staying involved. You know parents knowing that these devices are with them all the time, 24/7 and whats on devices and knowing they’re not just games but also portals to other social groups. And so, I think that’s really what we what to offer is support from the school district to help parents manage these tools.”

The district’s website includes links to more information and resources to recognize and report cyber-bullying.