When a Facebook page was created for the sole purpose of spewing hateful thoughts and rumors about her this year, Los Alamitos High School Senior Lizz Delarosa didn't tell her parents.
She didn't tell the school.
She didn't do anything about it.
"I don't see the point," she said. "I just kind of laugh about it."
With bravado, Delarosa said that she had heard about the page, but didn't bother to look at it.
At 18, Delarosa sees college in her future and her share of high school misadventures in her past. But for now, she and students everywhere operate in a world where schoolyard bulling meets the anonymity-spurred vitriol and permanence of the Internet. Its impact on their lives and development is still little understood. With the creation of its new bullying prevention task force, the Los Alamitos Unified School District hopes to help give students, staff and parents the tools to confront the age-old problem of schoolyard bullying as well as the ever-changing new one of cyber-bullying.
It won't be easy, admits Philip Bowen, assistant principal at Los Alamitos High School. Cyber-bullying has become even more of a problem than traditional bullying, he said.
"It's difficult, legally, to know what to do," added Bowen. "But we are developing a board policy that covers cyber-bullying. If something that occurs outside of school creates a material disruption at school, then we are responsible for addressing it."
Throughout the country, schools have grappled with whether to police or punish students engaged in online bullying and harassing text messaging.
"Typically, the response has been, 'That's not our domain,' " said Heidi Olshan, Los Alamitos High School counselor. With national headlines about the suicides of cyber-bullying victims, the district has decided to do something before a tragedy occurs, she added.
When an incident is reported at the school, the high school responds with a threat assessment team that can involve the school psychologist, police and parents. The show of force is designed to send a message, said Bowen.
"It says, 'We are taking this very seriously.' "
However, for fear of making the problem worse or being labeled a tattler, kids often won't come forward, said Olshan.
"Our biggest problem is finding out about it," she said. Rather than focus on how to respond to bullying incidents, the taskforce aims to change the school culture to prevent it, added Olshan.
"The culture in our society is a South Park culture. It's become OK for people to spout out a racial slur or anti-Semitic word, and that's harmful," Olshan said. "The goal is to set up norms and expectations that include accepting people, embracing diversity and an awareness that people have a right to an opinion, and it's OK if that opinion is different than yours."
Though ambitious, a paradigm shift in attitudes isn't so far-fetched, said University of California, Irvine Professor Candice Odgers.
"We have seen this kind of culture shift in the past," she said.
It took years to achieve, but the widespread disdain for smoking among adolescents illustrates that a campaign to change youth culture can work, she added.
Conversely, the "victim-hardening" approach hasn't proven to be effective in counteracting bullying, Odgers said. Victim-hardening is when parents and teachers encourage the victim not to be "so sensitive" or to behave differently to avoid becoming the target of bullying.
According to a report by the school's bullying prevention task force, it can be counterproductive for parents and teachers to encourage the victim not to "let" the bully get to them. Because the victim did not create the situation but is being asked to change his or her own behavior, a message is being sent that no one--not the school or the parents--can help the child.
Several studies have shown that addressing the larger culture in a classroom is more effective at curbing bullying, added Odgers.
"I think this type of initiative is clearly a great intervention and one that needs to be undertaken by our schools and ideally could serve as a template for other schools," Odgers said. "The landscape is constantly changing in terms of the technology, but the schools are eventually going to have to deal with these new realities."
For their part, parents have been split on how to protect their children from bullying, added Odgers. Some choose to monitor text and emails using software and stolen passwords, but that raises trust issues, she said.
Parents should communicate with their children, know their friends and when bullying does happen, parents should be prepared for the fact that their child might be the bully.
"A lot of kids who are bullying victims are also perpetrators, and parents are often blind to the fact that their kids are engaging in the bullying," Odgers added. "And there is some research to suggest that kids who are victims on the playground are often victims online."
One thing that teachers and students agree on is that junior high serves as ground zero for bullying and harassment.
"I think there is more harassment in those grades because the schools are smaller and rumors spread a lot quicker," said Los Alamitos High School freshman Jeff Dahlquist, 14.
In middle school, Dahlquist said he was teased for having a spastic tendon that caused his feet to point inward when he walked.
"They called me Duck, but once you've heard it a million times, you get used to it," he said.
Sometimes, rumors and name-calling raced through the school by text message, and once, a bully was called into the office to answer for it. The teasing stopped, but only for a few weeks, added Dahlquist.
By high school, the teasing had stopped, Dahlquist said.
"Now you'll see someone getting pushed around once in a while, but people don't really step in because they don't want to get messed with," he said. "You might feel bad about it later, but what can you do?"
Like many of his classmates, Dahlquist said the school's effort to promote a culture of understanding could work.
"I guess it really depends on the kids," he said.