ADDISON COUNTY/BRANDON — In the wake of the suicide last week of Mount Abraham student Olivia Scott, which family said was at least in part due to online bullying that the 16-year-old endured, school administrators, counselors and health professionals are stressing the importance of anti-bullying curricula in local schools.
Middlebury Police Officer Chris Mason, who interacts with students every day in his capacity as the Middlebury school resource officer, said youngsters struggle to respond to cyber bullying, and educators have a role in helping them understand the impact of the things they post online.
“Technology has advanced, but our capacity to use it responsibly hasn’t caught up,” Mason said. “When we talk in person, we see social cues that condition how we respond — there’s nothing like that online.”
Olivia Scott’s family said she was bullied on a the website ask.fm, where she had an account. On the site, anonymous posters can ask questions on a user’s page, and the user can answer them. Some of the posts to Scott’s account on the website demeaned her appearance and others encouraged her to harm herself.
While local school administrators didn’t talk about Scott’s particular case, some, like Vergennes Union High School Co-principal Ed Webbley, said instances of cyber bullying have increased in recent years.
“As technology increases, so does the bullying,” he said. “It’s easier to bully, to harass now.”
Unfortunately, adults are often behind the curve when trying to keep up with students’ online habits, he noted.
“I don’t think anyone in the school knew about ask.fm before this tragedy,” Webbley said.
VUHS has an extensive policy for dealing with bullying of all kinds, and it has invited speakers to address students on the impact of bullying. The school makes use of a resource response center and peer mediation. In addition, Webbley said the school has six employees from the Counseling Services of Addison County that work with troubled students.
“We take bullying very seriously,” Webbley said.
He credited the school’s Morning Meeting program for creating a strong relationship between teachers and students. In the program, teachers follow a group of 12-13 students through their entire four years of high school. The groups meet every morning for 20 minutes.
“We wanted every kid to know that there is an adult with a vested interest in them,” Webbley said.
otter valley AND MUHS
Nancy Robinson, co-principal at Otter Valley Union High School, said that students there go through several anti-bullying programs. Faculty use the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. The program is used across the country and has been credited with improving peer-to-peer relations and reducing bullying. Robinson praised the Olweus program for also addressing the responsibility bystanders have when witnessing bullying.
Robinson said that cyber bullying has been on the uptick in recent years, and that the school’s computer faculty includes a program about cyber bullying.
She said that it’s crucial that parents talk to their children about bullying.
“Sadly, parents don’t always realize what’s happening — when students are behind screens they’re much more courageous,” Robinson said. “It’s important that parents are aware of what their children are doing and what sites they’re on.”
Middlebury Union High School addresses bullying through student-to-student, teacher-to-student, and teacher-to-parents outreach. For instance, the school has a peer leader program, where 40 seniors help incoming freshman acclimate with a high school setting, Assistant Principal Catherine Dieman said. These seniors, who go through special training, meet with 9th-graders twice a week.
MUHS also hosts parent nights where officials discuss topics such as social networking, sexting, and drug and alcohol abuse. Students also talk about bullying in their health classes.
“Part of the curriculum deals with healthy relationships,” Officer Mason said. “A big part of combating bullying is us finding out about it.”
Mason said it is imperative that he and other adults be integrated in the school community. He and other staff focus on building relationships with students, so students feel comfortable approaching staff about personal troubles they may have.
“We have a number of students who come in and report things, and we respond immediately,” said Brooke Jette, a prevention specialist.
School counselors facilitate mediations between students who are having problems with each other, which staff credit with improving interpersonal and problem-solving skills.
“The goal of doing this is for students to learn skills to mediate on their own,” Dieman said.
Dieman, Mason and Jette agreed that cyber bullying has increased in recent years.
“We encourage parents to play an active role in what their kids are doing in school and online,” Mason said.
When cyber bullying comes to light, school officials credit mediation for helping children understand the impact of what they may post online.
“There’s a faceless quality to what people say online,” Dieman added.
Dieman said that students most often know of new social networking sites before adults, but that staff make a point to communicate with students to find out what these sites are, and how students are using them. Staff also maintain a social media presence — Mason, for example, maintains his own Facebook and Twitter page.
“There are new sites popping up all the time, some set up for high-risk behavior,” Jette said. “It’s a normative experience to be thrill-seekers, and social media is very instant.”
Mason said the most important part of combating bullying is building a sense of community at the school. While he is a police officer and sees the law enforcement side of bullying, he stressed that the most effective tools are things like peer mediation.
A COMPLICATED ISSUE
Corinna Stewart, associate director of the Counseling Services of Addison County, said that bullying is a complicated issue.
“Bullying is not the clear cut issue that many believe it to be,” Stewart wrote in an email to the Independent. “These days it is rarely one sided — bullies have been victims and victims become bullies.”
Stewart added that young people, whose brains have not fully developed, psychologically have trouble handling cyber bullying.
“The prevalence of social media that is too often un-supervised and unrelenting makes for a venue that the adolescent brain — and maybe not adult brains either — is not equipped to process fully.”
The unceasing nature of online bullying is unlike other forms of harassment, and school and parents alike struggle to find an effective response.
“Parents are often unprepared for the complications of such an emotionally laden and non-stop, intrusive and interrupting force in kids’ lives,” Stewart said. “Schools are also grappling with how to supervise the use of social media.”
mount aBE IN MOURNING
Mount Abraham Union High School hosted a memorial service for Olivia Scott on Tuesday evening and the Independent respected the family’s wishes not to have the media attend.
Mount Abe and Addison Northeast Supervisory Union officials declined to talk with the media about their anti-bullying programs in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. But the Independent has highlighted efforts at the school to educate students on bullying.
The school, for instance, sponsors the Mount Abraham Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program, which brings students together to work on a variety of issued designed to empower students. Last year the group was behind the Kindness Campaign, which promoted bullying awareness by recognizing students who were going out of their way to be kind. The school has also observed a Wear Purple Day, in which students and staff wore purple ribbons or hearts and signed cards pledging their support for efforts to end bullying and harassment.
Mount Abe senior Addy Campbell, in a letter to the Independent (See Page 4A), said the school community was grieving and struggling to comprehend the loss. She supported the school’s teachers and administrators, who she said support the students.
“As a student, I firmly believe that our school is a good place to be, our community is one of acceptance, and its staff a group of adults deeply concerned about our emotional well-being,” she wrote.