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Following the not guilty pleas entered Tuesday on behalf of three of the teenagers charged with harassing Phoebe Prince — the 15-year-old South Hadley High School student who committed suicide after being bullied for months — three more implicated teens are due in court Friday.
While it is only students facing criminal charges, serious questions are directed at educators.
Teachers and school administrators across the state are paying increasing attention to their roles in preventing bullying whenever — and wherever — it happens. The Prince case is just the latest reminder that it happens online.
Cyberbullying expert Elizabeth Englander led a seminar in Worcester Tuesday for more than 200 teachers, counselors and school administrators. She says the Internet's biggest contribution to bullying is not direct harassment, but its ability to spread gossip.
"If you continue this online behavior here in school, then you will be subject to school discipline. We’re aware of the situation, and we’re watching.”- Elizabeth Englander's suggestion for what teachers should tell students
"The No. 1 issue by far is the rumor mill," Englander told her students. "If the only thing we were able to accomplish was to get kids to be conscious and aware of the online impact on the rumor mill, we will have accomplished a great deal."
It's clear that for some in the auditorium, the facts were new, and scary.
More than once, teachers gasped when Englander described some of the interactions she has seen between teens on Facebook.
One of those gasps came from Annette Boyer, a white-haired librarian from Worcester, overwhelmed by the apparent speed with which bullying has changed because of social networking technology like instant messaging and Facebook.
"I don't even know if we can keep up with this because I'm just beginning to absorb some stuff today," Boyer said. "By next week there will be other things out there that we won't know about, you know. It's very dangerous stuff."
Knowing what is going on isn't the only challenge. Even if educators are aware of what students are doing online, they are not sure they can get involved in what happens off school grounds.
Englander says it is true that teachers don't always have a right to take disciplinary action in online cases. But they could, says Englander, warn students about what they know.
"If you continue this online behavior here in school, then you will be subject to school discipline," Englander suggested teachers tell their students. "We're aware of the situation, and we're watching."
Englander says that online behavior almost always continues in school. That's why she wants teachers to stop thinking of bullying and cyberbullying as two separate issues. She says they're interconnected.
"When the adults say, 'We know exactly what’s going on, we’re not leaving this alone, and we’re not keeping this a secret,' you are immediately disabling a lot of that power.”
As vice principal at a middle school in Northborough, Michelle Karb says she sees that firsthand.
"Students may come in to school and you may see an exchange that looks like its nothing, maybe a student just makes kind of an innocent face at somebody else," Karb said, "but if you don't know the interactions that happened online the night before, it's hard to understand the impact that that face might have had on the person."
That makes it hard for educators to appreciate how serious some bullying situations may be.
In the Phoebe Prince case, teachers have said they knew about some harassment at school, but did not understand everything happening online. It's something Englander told teachers they have to find out.
"Abuse is about secrecy. You have power over your victim by keeping it a secret and by keeping your victim quiet. So when adults say, 'We know exactly what's going on, we're not leaving this alone, and we're not keeping this a secret,' you are immediately disabling a lot of that power."
This program aired on April 7, 2010.
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