Middle school students urged to communicate ‘positively’ online

Published 6:24 pm Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bill Womer with the Michigan attorney general’s office discusses safe online practices and ways to prevent cyber bulling with a group of Dowagiac sixth-grade students. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Bill Womer with the Michigan attorney general’s office discusses safe online practices and ways to prevent cyber bulling with a group of Dowagiac sixth-grade students. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

In the openings minutes of his presentation, Bill Womer posed a simple question to the group of sixth-graders sitting in front of him inside the auditorium.

“Are you ready to lead by example and prevent cyber bullying?”

Womer, who works with the Michigan Attorney General’s office, spoke to students at Dowagiac Middle School Tuesday morning about the impact their online interactions have on both their lives and lives of their classmates. Womer urged students to remain on the “plus” side of the Internet, using the websites like Facebook and Twitter to help, not harass.

“Remember, the moment you step on the ‘minus’ side of the line, you’re putting your reputation and possibly even your life in jeopardy,” Womer said.

Womer told kids of the dangers presented by online predators, of the consequences of engaging in “sexting” and of the real-world impact that bullying their classmates online can have.

While the concept of “cyber bullies” has been around since the days of dialup Internet connections and America Online, the rapid expansion of popular new social networking applications has posed a new set of problems for educators looking to combat such behavior. Administrators with the middle school see programs such the attorney general’s Cyber Safety Initative as one way of keeping kids abreast of the digital trends of their peers and to remind them how to use their gadgets in a responsible manner.

“Kids need to be thoughtful about what they do online, to think before they post,” said Principal Matt Severin.

While this is only the second time that he’s invited the program into the middle school, Severin considers it to be an essential part in the school’s efforts to combat cyber bullying among its students, he said.

“We thought it went really well when we brought them in two years ago, and we wanted to bring it back this year,” he said.

While most of the current eighth-grade had already been exposed to the program, Severin said that a lot of the information was updated for this year to include discussion about Snapchat and other popular smartphone programs.

When he talked to kids about the assembly during lunch, Severin said that most said they enjoyed the presentation.

“All the kids I talked to said that they learned some important things from it,” he said.

One of things that many students don’t realize is that, even behind the screen of a laptop or phone, hurtful comments not only have impact on the people they are about, but on the environment of the school as well, the principal said.

“While it happens outside of school, it carries over into the school as well,” Severin said.

Severin and other district administrators have made curbing the growth of bullying, both online and in the halls, a priority over the last several years, the principle said.

Three years ago, the school’s leadership decided to shift student, teacher and staff interaction in a more positive and supportive direction, resulting in a decline in office referrals, Severin said.

“What my staff and students have done to change the culture of our school has had a great impact,” he said.

However, the principal said that bullying still occurs within the school, when he and other administrators aren’t looking. To prevent this, students can fill out incident reports, which they submit anonymously to the office to report bullying or other negative behavior.

“We work with the students to give a resolution to the situation before it becomes a problem,” Severin said.