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Cyberbullying on Long Island

Confronting peer torment in the social-networking age


Those correspondences were part of a school project in their English and social studies classes, explains Principal Dean Mittleman. The students researched and wrote persuasive letters about an issue that was important to them. Hannon received more than 100 relating to bullying.

One student asked whether schools would be held accountable under his bill for bullying. Hannon said it didn’t seem “productive” or “useful” to penalize teachers and administrators. He stressed education as a key to prevention.

Another 12-year-old offered his own advice.


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“What you need to actually show [students] is examples of what happened,” he told Hannon. “People like Ryan Halligan that took their life because they were bullied too much. That will actually inform them about what happened and how bad bullying can be.”

John Halligan and his son, Ryan, are names that resonate with many involved in the quest for more comprehensive anti-bullying and cyberbullying laws across the country. A former IBM employee who quit his job following the 2003 suicide of his son, Halligan travels the country hosting school seminars ranging from bullying to suicide. In March, he spoke at Sachem East High School, sharing his son’s story.

Ryan was bullied in school and over the Internet. False rumors about him being gay led him to kill himself, Halligan somberly told the audience, his voice sporadically shifting to tones of infuriation about Ryan’s demise. One particular bully continued to harass his son even after death, he told attendees. In a rage, Halligan paid a visit to the home of his son’s tormentor. Yet instead of physically harming the bully, Halligan peacefully expressed his anguish face-to-face with the bully and his parents.

The bully was reduced to tears, he said.

Spreading the Message: NYS Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) met with seventh graders at H.B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview last month to discuss the dangers of cyberbullying and answer questions regarding a proposed bill that would make it illegal to bully over the Internet in New York.

The response is emblematic of what other anti-bully advocates believe to be as powerful a weapon as the hurtful actions of the bullies themselves: speaking up.

Dominique Napolitano, 15, of West Islip—the town where Alexis Pilkington died by suicide—has been sounding the alarm about the dangers of cyberbullying from Long Island all the way to Capitol Hill.

On June 24, the Girl Scout, on behalf of the Girl Scouts of America, addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee about ensuring student cyber safety. The subcommittee is chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), who called the hearing to try and come up with some answers.

“An intimidating boy at my school created a Facebook ‘fan club’ called the ‘Mary T. Fan Club’ that was created expressly for the purpose of publically humiliating my classmate Mary,” she told the subcommittee. “The ‘Mary T. Fan Club’ made sarcastic comments about Mary’s body, hair and personality, and encouraged her peers to make fun of Mary.

“I’m happy to report that this student was not only disciplined in school, but also outside of school,” she continued. “His prank socially backfired on him when students started joining the fan club and began standing up for Mary.”

Napolitano used the anecdote to demonstrate the power individual students possess against such tactics when they stand up together to defeat it.

“Before you press that send button just think: How is this going to affect the person?” she tells the Press. “Am I saying something that’s just going to maybe put them over the edge? Is what I’m saying really going to hurt this person? And I really think they have to recognize what they say can have a really negative effect on the person physically, emotionally and socially.

“If they post something on the Internet it can affect what college they go to,” Napolitano adds.

And besides serving as a permanent cyber reminder of that torment, Beth Lilach, director of education at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove, explains that intolerance, personified in bullying, is the gateway to genocide.

“There’s no logic when it comes to intolerance or hatred,” she says.

Intolerance among students is the focus of a workshop sponsored by the center that strives to inform would-be bullies about the ramifications of their actions and the importance of acceptance. The seminars also instruct students to take a more active role against intolerance—stressing attendees to be “upstanders” rather than “bystanders.”

“If you’re not helping the person being targeted, the victim, then you’re actually helping the perpetrator,” she explains. “If you’re not doing anything, you are helping the bully.”

Simultaneous to the student workshops, the center separates teachers and administrators into their own group, whereby facilitators educate them as well. By empowering adults with this knowledge, it’s a domino effect.

“Because if they [adults] don’t do something, then it shows to the child that there’s no point of being an upstander,” Lilach tells the Press. “It’s up to the administration to provide people that not only are safe adults for students to go to, but really will take action.

“You cannot just focus on students,” she adds. “We also have a special group for the teachers, and they also need the support of their administration, because it’s up to the administration to make sure that this is a widespread common knowledge that we have zero tolerance for bullying.”

Yet, as hopeful and effective as education workshops and school seminars are, it is undoubtedly an uphill battle. The grim reality is currently a systemic lapse of federal, state and local legislation across the United States specifically targeting cyberbullying and holding offenders accountable for its too-often deadly ramifications.

Case in point: Lori Drew. The 49-year-old from Missouri was convicted in November 2008 of computer fraud for her role in a MySpace hoax that resulted in the suicide death of 13-year-old Megan Meier, a former friend of Drew’s daughter Sarah. It was the first cyberbullying case in the country and grabbed national headlines.

Drew and others created and maintained a fictitious profile, posing as a teenage boy named Josh Evans, and courted Meier for weeks before abruptly ending the relationship with the ominous line, “The world would be a better place without you.”

“You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over,” responded Meier, according to The New York Times. She hung herself shortly afterward.

Prosecutors pursued Drew under the argument that violating the social-networking site’s terms of service agreement was the legal equivalent of computer hacking. Last July, a federal judge overruled the jury and acquitted her.

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Jamie Isaacs’ parents are disappointed that Cooper withdrew his bill specifically aimed at holding school administrators accountable for attacks against students. But Jamie has documented the actions of her and her brother’s bullies by writing two books about their experiences. She vows she will not give up the fight. The 14-year-old is ready to combat the bullies by being a vocal and outspoken voice against bullying’s ever-evolving torment, she says.

The family is also founding a nonprofit to help those who are at the end of their ropes after suffering at the hands of bullies.

Isaacs implores victims not to give up, and instead:

“[To] always believe in themselves. If they don’t believe in themselves and they don’t feel confident then they’ll push to suicide or they’ll push to constantly hurting themselves and they’ll go down a depressed road. If they keep their self esteem up they’ll be able to see the better side of things.”

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