Making the Grade: Examining the Valley’s High Schools

The economic downturn has forced educators throughout the region to do more with less. Here’s a look at how four local schools are helping their students succeed with innovative programs and special services. Want to know how your child’s school measures up? Check our chart, which lists stats for 65 Valley high schools



(page 6 of 7)

girl on computerPhotograph by Ana Blazic; courtesy of Shutterstock

Cyber-bullying: From the playground to your PC

Remember the scene in Grease where Rizzo tells Marty she’s knocked up and not to tell... but Marty runs out and tells Jan, who tells someone else, who tells someone else, and the whole drive-in knows by the time Rizzo leaves the bathroom? The next day, girls sneer and whisper, her boyfriend confronts her, and she sings a song about staying strong. Typical teenage behavior, right? Maybe in 1959.

Today, Rizzo’s pregnancy likely would have been plastered across the Facebook pages of her classmates. She would not have to guess what sort of judgment her peers were passing down, because she would be able to read it right there in cyberspace, and it would be tenfold crueler than anything ever said to her face. Her song would be one of complete betrayal, exclusion, and cruelty, and if she didn’t sing it to the principal, a therapist, or her parents, she might do so in a suicide note. Welcome to the decade of the cyber-bully.

Cyber-bullying can take many forms. The term refers to the spreading of rumors or secrets via social networking sites, mobile phone technology, or instant messaging; setting up hate or slam sites; posting humiliating videos on YouTube; outing (exclusion from a group); and sexting (the viral sending or receiving of sexually explicit text messages or pictures). While the damage is done with a simple click of a mouse, the effects can be devastating, even deadly.

In 2008, in what was considered to be the nation’s first cyber-bullying trial, jurors heard testimony about a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after receiving numerous online taunts from a fictitious boy who, it was later revealed, was actually the mother of one of the teenager’s friends.

“For victims, self-esteem is rocked, identity is challenged. They either internalize the aggression, or externalize it, like what happened at Columbine,” says Brian Gerety, executive clinical director of the Therapy Center in Bedford Hills.

cyber bullyPhotograph by Monkey Business Images; courtesy of Shutterstock

The explosion of new technology has fueled the increase in cyber-bullying among children and teens. MySpace burst onto the World Wide Web in 2003, igniting the social networking craze. Members create a homepage with pictures, interests, blogs, music, and videos, and can collect “friends” by sending requests to other members; friends are then able to post notes on each other’s pages (called “walls”) for all to see. Facebook further cemented the social networking obsession for the college set when it was introduced in 2004. That same year, 40 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 19 were using cell phones, with the number projected to increase another 15 percent by 2006. The preoccupation with tech-driven communication is so pervasive, the New Oxford American Dictionary’s official Word of the Year for 2009 was “unfriend” — to remove someone as a friend from your social networking site.

Teen preoccupation with virtual communication has had some unexpected consequences. “The close-knit family atmosphere is a thing of the past,” Gerety points out. “With the Internet, there’s a forum for social networking and expression of feelings that previously wasn’t available; kids don’t need to speak to their parents.” With the proliferation of tech-chat forums — from e-mail to Twitter to gChat — the need, or tendency, to actually speak to another person seems to be fading. “There’s been a lot of talk about this generation being less empathetic,” posits Gerety. “It’s easier to bully someone in cyberspace because there’s a certain detachment that allows the bully to be more spontaneous and free-ranging. Because you don’t actually have to confront the person, you can be much crueler.”

Westchester’s Dr. Joel Haber, the “Bullycoach” and founder of RespectU, agrees: “Bullying used to be physical and verbal, but now it’s more about exclusion. It’s easy to send mobile bombs to leave a kid out, shut them down, be mean and nasty.” And while the damage may be done in cyberspace, the fallout is very real, and it happens at school.

“We’ve had suspensions that started with Facebook. There’ll be an issue between two students, and you come to find out it started on the Internet. A few students have wanted to transfer because they’ve felt so ostracized,” says Thomas Stella, principal of Roy C. Ketcham High in Wappingers Falls. As part of an anti-bullying program, the school district recently hosted speaker John Halligan. In 2003, Halligan’s 13-year-old son Ryan committed suicide after years of ferocious bullying escalated online. “The kids were very moved by his presentation,” Stella says.

But the work to address the cyber-bullying problem — which Gerety says is the biggest challenge adolescents (and their parents) face today — doesn’t stop with the kids. In fact, according to Haber, it starts with the parents. “As technology grows, there are more potential ways for adults and children to be hurtful. And that’s becoming normal behavior. Like adults gossiping — it’s not nice, but it’s a common behavior. Parents need to look at how they role model, how they discuss these things with their kids.” So what’s a parent to do?

Monitor your child’s online activities. “Much of cyber-bullying goes unnoticed by parents,” says Gerety. “It’s harder for them to monitor their children’s activities. They don’t know what their kids are writing to their friends.” Gerety suggests you reserve the right to review Facebook or MySpace profiles. “You want a sense of the flavor of the messages, some sense of surveillance. If you discover Facebook is being used for bullying, terminate the account.” And when it comes to mobile technology, the same applies. “If you’re going to get your kid a cell phone, it needs limits. It’s a privilege, not a right,” says Haber. “If they cross a line, there has to be consequences.”

Network yourself. “Across the board, what you’re seeing in one house, you’re seeing in many houses,” Gerety says. “Parents need to be with each other. It really does take a village.” By networking with the parents of your child’s peers, you create a community that can help you address incidences of bullying with a phone call. In Gerety’s opinion, this is particularly important during middle school.

Teach your children well — and be realistic about their maturity. “Kids are always looking to stretch limits and boundaries,” insists Haber, “but we should only give them more freedom when they can handle it. We don’t give kids access to a car when they’re 12. The Internet allows for the same sort of devastating consequences: harassment charges, predators. The adolescent brain is impulsive, it likes high risk, so it’s most important for parents to be involved, and monitoring them if needed: ‘We trust you, but...’ By 18, they hopefully know the right thing, and are using [social networking and mobile technology] appropriately.”

Ask for help. If you think your child may be being bullied, Gerety suggests getting him or her into a private consultation with a therapist. And don’t be afraid to get the school involved. According to Haber, “It’s critical that schools are part of the solution.” Stella agrees: “I would like to think that when something happens, our students know to say something. There are consequences in a civil society for saying malicious things. I’m a firm believer in getting parents in and sitting them down. Let’s all work together here.”

Resources:

The Therapy Center
Bullyproof Your Child for Life by Dr. Joel Haber
Respect U
Ryan’s Story Presentation, LLC
National Crime Prevention Council

Next class: Review your high school

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