15 December 2012

Social Networking Tragedy

This blog entry is dedicated to Jessica Laney, the 15-year-old teenager from Hudson (a community in Pasco County, Florida on US 19) who recently committed suicide due to cyber-bullying on a social networking website.  My thoughts and condolences go to Jessica's family in this time of grief and sorrow, especially with the Christmas holiday season underway.

In a June 2012 post I discussed why I do not (and I will not) have a presence on a social networking site such as Facebook.  With the recent tragedy involving a 15-year-old teenager from Hudson, Florida (a community in Pasco County on US 19), Jessica Laney, which was attributed to cyber-bullying on a social networking website, ask.fm based out of Latvia, this is one of many reasons why I don't (and won't) have a presence on a social networking website such as Facebook. 

First, let's start off with a link to an article in the St. Petersburg Times by staff writer Erin Sullivan and a comment I made in which I made a few points regarding making a comment about a person on a social networking website:

This is tragic.  This is very sad.

Unfortunately, this is America and whatever you post about a person, especially on a social networking website, is protected by the First Amendment.  However, it comes with a responsibility that free speech is protected by the First Amendment provided that you do not violate the law such as making threats against someone.  But how is this being enforced?  That is the question.

To contrast, if you get caught saying things to another person, especially on a social networking website, that are hurtful (to that person) in another country - let's say Singapore or even Canada - you can get prison time.

A fellow St. Petersburg Times commenter whose name is firehawkv8 offered a slightly different point of view, and I respect that.  For those other commenters on this St. Petersburg Times article who have way different points of view, I offer an explanation.

First of all, our country was founded on the principles of liberty and democracy.  Right after our American Constitution was drafted and approved in 1789, there were certain civil liberties that we cherish today that were not written into our constitution.  So, the first ten amendments were proposed and passed which we know today as the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment, which we know very well by heart, permits freedom of speech among other things without undue government interference.  However, freedom of speech thanks to the First Amendment is not absolute - instead, court decisions over the years define what is lawful free speech.  In other words, you can speak what you want but only in a lawful manner.

Fast forward 200+ years.  Fast forward to the present day and age of the Internet and social networking such as Facebook and MySpace.  How does Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites enforce their rules and regulations (called the Terms of Service) when it comes to making comments about a person on unfavorable terms?

The social networking sites do have a way for you to report an inappropriate comment.  Unfortunately, nine times out of ten these reports are looked at and then get set aside on the back burner.  The end result:  The unfavorable comments continue, even if it escalates to unlawful behavior.

After all, this is America, where we cherish our God-given right of free speech and expression.  Unfortunately, our American civil liberties that we cherish so much stop right at the United States border when you cross into Mexico or Canada.

Once you walk thru that metal turnstile or drive your car across the dividing line south of San Ysidro, the American Bill of Rights stop right there at the international dividing line that separates the United States from Mexico.  After all, the American Bill of Rights does not follow you once you are in Tijuana - instead, you are subject to the jurisdiction of Mexican law once you cross the border from the United States into Mexico.

In a lot of countries around the world, you can end up going to prison for making even unfavorable statements about a person which would otherwise be legal in the United States.  For instance, take the case of a restaurant owner in Ottawa - Canada's national capital - who was convicted of defamatory libel after the restaurant owner launched a nasty online campaign against a customer who spoke up about her dissatisfaction of the restaurant in an online review, according to an article on consumerist.com.

Had this taken place in the United States, more than likely no legal action would be taken as libel is largely a civil matter and you have to prove a very good case to win a libel claim.  Once you cross the international border, things do change; what would be a civil tort for libel in the United States can become a criminal offense in another country such as Canada.

What could have been done to prevent needless tragedies such as what happened to Jessica Laney thanks to the comments made on a social networking website?

A lot needs to be done here.

An important line of defense against social network cyberbullying is in our schools.  More and more schools and school districts are tackling the issue of cyberbullying by offering counseling and support to students that are victims of cyberbullying.  Unfortunately, as this article from ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Tampa) states, faculty and staff at Fivay High School, where Jessica Laney attended, were very reluctant to speak to students about bullying and suicide in the wake of what happened.

This is why most high school students who are victims of cyberbullying are afraid of even making a report or talking to a trusted individual such as a teacher, a counselor or even administrative personnel.  It is done out of fear of a student being given disciplinary action on the part of school administration such as an out of school suspension.

After all, a public school system's student code of conduct - such as the student code of conducts of the various school districts of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area including the Pinellas County School District - makes it clear:  As a student, you are guilty of any offense in the student code of conduct unless it is proved otherwise.  The student code of conduct is akin to Mexican law, based on Roman law and the Napoleonic Code, which means that you are guilty of a criminal offense and the burden of proof that you are innocent falls upon you, not the state.

Have you seen the movie Bully which was shown in theaters in the early part of 2012?  It's a touching documentary of families who were touched by incidents of bullying in our public schools.  You got to see it for yourself; it is supposed to come out on DVD sometime in 2013.

Unfortunately, despite anti-bullying policies put in place by the school districts there are schools that do condone bullying in any form and punish the victim with out of school suspensions among other things, citing useless zero tolerance school rules.  It is these actions taken by school administrators that lead students to do the unthinkable.

Another line of defense against social network cyberbullying is parents.  As a parent, you should be open and up front about your child's activities, both in school and online at home.

According to StopBullying.gov, here are the warning signs that your child is being bullied.  Note that not all children being bullied exhibit these warning signs:

Unexplainable injuries
Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking an illness
Changes in eating habits
Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
Self destructive behaviors such as running away from home or the unthinkable:  Committing suicide.

Moreover, as a parent you play an important role in your child's education, which is ultimately your child's future.  As such, if you think that your child is exhibiting the above warning signs of being bullied then it is your right - and an obligation - as a parent to speak with your child's school administration about your concerns.  Make sure that you stress to the school administration that your child is being bullied and don't let the school administration brush it off as an isolated incident.

The thing to remember is that bullying in your child's school, whether it may be fellow students, teachers or staff including your child's principal or assistant principal, should not be a part of your child's daily routine in school.

Another item to remember is that if your child uses a computer during the school day, its use is usually restricted to school related tasks throughout the school day.  Nearly all school districts block access to social networking websites such as Facebook, and that's the way it should be:  School is a place where your child is getting an education in order to prepare for your child's future.  Unfortunately, in school districts where the use of cell phones is permitted on a limited basis, the potential for cyberbullying on social networking websites exists.  (In fact, you can get a Facebook app for your BlackBerry right on BlackBerry's App World!)

My teenager is in crisis due to cyberbullying.  The high school that my teenager goes to won't help me.  What do I do?

I would like to close out this blog entry with what you can do as a parent if your teenager is in crisis because of cyberbullying.  If we can understand and realize the important warning signs as I mentioned earlier cyberbullying tragedies, especially attributable to social networking websites, can be avoided and lives saved.

With that in mind, here's what you should do as a parent if your teenager is in crisis due to any form of bullying, including cyberbullying.

Someone posted a threatening message on my teenager's Facebook page:  Call 911 immediately.  Do not close any screens on the computer until law enforcement arrives.  Law enforcement will take a report and gather any screen shots of the page as evidence to help track down the perpetrator.  Insist that a police report be taken so that you have a police report number to reference it by later down the road; don't let the police brush it off as a minor non-reportable incident.

My teenager has expressed hopelessness, helplessness or is thinking of suicide:  Suicide is a very serious matter!!!  In an immediate emergency, call 911.  Or, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (that's 1 (800) 273-8255) to be connected to the crisis center near you.

My teenager is in constant anxiety and fear, and it is showing in declining grades in schoolwork:  You may want to find a mental health counselor in your area.  If your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which is open not only to you but your entire family, your employer's EAP can be of valuable assistance.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, you can also call 211 to get help.

Whatever you do, if your teenager is in crisis, please get help somewhere.

A personal note:

Personally, I think the Pasco County School District as well as Fivay High School and its principal, Angie Stone, failed Jessica Laney.  After reading the articles on several Tampa Bay area news media outlets including the St. Petersburg Times, ABC Action News, 10 News (WTSP-TV), and Bay News 9, I think Jessica Laney was afraid to report what was going on to someone at school for fear of retribution.

The Pasco County School District needs to do more to address the issue of bullying, especially cyberbullying, in all of its schools.  This should be a priority for Pasco County's newly elected Superintendent of Schools, Kurt Browning, who used to be Florida's Secretary of State.

Had this taken place in another country where defamatory libel is a crime, such as Canada, the perpetrators who posted those remarks on ask.fm that led to Jessica Laney's suicide would more than likely be charged with a criminal offense, probably an indictable offense (that's what felonies are called in Canada) as a loss of life was involved.  What compounds the issue is that ask.fm is based in Latvia and you got international law involved.

Remember, the life you save as a parent is your teenager's life.  For that reason, early intervention when your teenager is bullied is very critical.

Like what the signs say on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge next to the crisis intervention/motorist aid call boxes, there is hope - make the call.

What happened to Jessica Laney is very sad and tragic.  May she rest in peace.

Parents, it's your children.

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