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Otter Valley students reject bully-friendly app

BRANDON — Otter Valley Union High School just said “no” to bullying.
A controversial smartphone application used by students to bully others that was taken down in Rutland High School last December appeared at OV last week and met the same fate.
OV Principal Jim Avery said on Saturday that the presence of the After School app was brought to his attention on Monday, June 1, when two students met him that morning and told him about it. By Thursday, the entire school had mobilized against the app, its users and their bullying tactics.
Everyone said it unified the student body.
“We decided we needed to come at it,” Avery said. “We needed to crush it. We needed to put on a united front with the faculty with the message that we need to be proactive about this.”
The After School app was unveiled last fall and is accessible to anyone with an iPhone via iTunes using a Facebook account. The aim of the app is to give kids a forum to express themselves anonymously without fear of repercussion for their comments. But the anonymous nature of the postings quickly turned the app into a bullying tool with users posting hurtful comments about fellow students.
In early December 2014, students and faculty at Rutland High School started a petition via Change.org, lobbying Apple to take down the app after bullying began at the school via After School. The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures, the support of state education officials and Gov. Peter Shumlin, and helped persuade Apple to remove the After School app from its online app store.
After School creator Cory Levy has repeatedly stated that the smartphone application is merely a “blank sheet of paper” that allows kids to write their thoughts and feelings without fear that their parents will see the content.
But any platform that allows kids to post anonymous comments unfortunately will turn negative, Avery said.
“(The app) is designed to be positive, but it has been used for more hurtful purposes than not,” the principal said.
Since last winter’s backlash in Rutland, the After School app was pulled from Apple’s online App Store twice. In April, Levy relaunched an updated version of After School with what are described as “updated safety features.” Levy has said those features included creating a “Safety Board” made up of psychologists, educators and nonprofit leaders “dedicated to making the Internet a safer place for young people.”
The application now has proactive features that respond to users who post threatening or troubling messages, as well as moderators who review every post before it gets posted live to the social network. A “mature content” filter prevents anyone under the age of 17 from seeing mature posts, and in order to verify a user’s age, After School requires a driver’s license scan. Levy has said he and his company have “zero tolerance for hateful content.”
But last Monday at OV, there was plenty of hateful content on the After School app directed at fellow students, and Avery said the efforts of guidance staff member Lisa King, the Otter Paws community volunteer group, the student body and the faculty helped turn a negative into a positive.
The grassroots campaign quickly turned into STAR (Stop, Think, Act, Reflect). Twine bracelets with colored stars were handed out to all takers. Over 100 leaflets that read “I pledge to be positive on all social media” covered the OV lobby walls, each one signed by a different student. Posters urging attention to passive-aggressive comments online and warning against apathy covered the walls. Avery sent out messages and photos about the effort on Twitter, garnering more support from fellow principals at South Burlington High School and Montpelier High School.
“We’re all in the same situation,” Avery said of his fellow principals. “We’re all talking about how we can collaborate together because it has to come from the kids.”
Avery credits King and the Otter Paws group for quick mobilization on the issue, but said the goal wasn’t just to crush a bullying app. It was bigger than that.
“It’s just become a state of mind,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing and contributing to a positive atmosphere in the school.”
On Saturday, OV was buzzing with soon-to-be graduates and proud parents as final graduation preparations were being made. Avery said he hadn’t heard anymore about the After School app since Thursday’s rally.
“But I’m sure it hasn’t stopped,” he said of online bullying in general. “It’s a constant. I think that’s why the Otter Paws included all of these social media sites in the effort. It’s about everything we do.”
Avery said the problem runs even deeper, to a socio-cultural level where students, as well as adults, need to remember how to treat each other.
“It’s how we treat each other in the hallways or on the street,” Avery said. “This isn’t a one-shot thing. We have to carry it into next year. It’s a whole movement we have to carry forward.”

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