Policing the airwaves

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Cyber-bullying has risen dramatically in the past two years. At Hermitage Academy, where statistics fall well below the national average, radical steps are being taken to eradicate it

A WEST of Scotland secondary school has taken the unusual step of devoting an entire week to raising awareness about cyber-bullying.

Every pupil and most members of staff at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh have been involved in sessions addressing a problem that both police and the school say has risen significantly in the past two years.

Although the school has a well-developed approach to tackling bullying, it was felt there was widespread ignorance about the abuse of mobile phones and the internet.

Assemblies at the school this week featured three senior girls acting out a scene from a mock bedroom. They showed how tempting and easy it could be to give out personal details that might be used against them, having been contacted online by "footie_mad_boy", who claimed to be a good-looking 15-year-old.

They were followed by Dumbarton-based community safety officer Sergeant Stuart Barr, of Strathclyde Police, who visibly surprised many pupils with his explanation of how easily the abuse of technology could be deemed illegal. He said that merely disseminating offensive images would constitute a criminal act.

Morag McGinlay, principal guidance teacher, said that while pupils were well aware of what constituted bullying in a more traditonal sense, they were sometimes surprised by what might be considered a bullying use of mobiles phones or the internet.

The assemblies closed with a video clip based on a true story of an American teenage girl who was bullied through a "hate site" on the internet, where her picture was posted inside a circle with a red bar through it and spiteful messages wishing her a "painful" death and warning the girl that: "At the end of the school year we will catch you." The clip finished by showing that, although the perpetrators were dealt with, there had been long-lasting effects on the girl.

After the assemblies, S1-2 pupils took part in "cyber-safety" sessions led by sixth years. Staff feel older pupils are better informed for discussing the technology and issues involved, and have more cred-ibility with the younger pupils.

Mrs McGinlay said that a week of assemblies was given over to bullying issues at Hermitage Academy every year, but that this was the first time the focus had been exclusively on cyber-bullying. This followed a significant rise in new forms of bullying in the past two years, although she stressed that, overall, records show bullying at the school to be well below the national average.

The school has been alerted to a handful of hate sites relating to their own pupils - although Mrs McGinlay recognises that there are likely to be more - one of which showed a rat's head superimposed on to the image of the victim.

As is the case with more traditional forms of bullying, incidents are often the result of friends falling out rather than the stereotypical image of random acts of aggression against younger victims.

Incidents of happy-slapping are more common, with perhaps half a dozen identified by the school each month. These may involve a scuffle filmed spontaneously by pupils who happen to be in the vicinity, but there is also a new phenomenon: fights that have been arranged for the purposes of being filmed, which resulted in images Mrs McGinlay described as "degrading".

Mrs McGinlay also said that leaflets would be sent out to parents, with advice on how to spot and deal with cyber-bullying.

"What has really surprised me is adults' low awareness of what's going on, and how powerful this type of bullying can be," Mrs McGinlay commented.

She added that, while bullying may be taking new forms, the school would continue to use established methods of restorative justice to deal with the problem, where perpetrators are required to examine the consequences of their actions.

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