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Schoolyard bullying has gone high-tech

Shurtleff part of effort to protect youths from cyber-harassment

Mark Shurtleff
Mark Shurtleff

WASHINGTON — Kylie Kenney was standing at her locker two years ago when some classmates asked her if she had seen "the Web site."

She had no idea what they were talking about, but as the day wore on, she quickly learned — and so started her journey into becoming a victim of cyber-bullying.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff stood with Kenney at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Thursday when she told her story as part of a campaign to educate students, parents and teachers that bullying has gone beyond stealing lunch money or playground fights.

The group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids says that bullying has evolved to include anonymous threats and harassment over the Internet through Web pages, e-mails and instant messaging or text messages, and calls on a teen's cell phone.

Kenney, who will be a sophomore this fall in Vermont, described how on that day in eighth grade she learned that someone had set up an Internet site called "Kill Kylie Incorporated" that was "devoted to show people how gay Kylie Kenney is," with the sign-off phrase, "Kylie must die." A few days later, someone started sending instant messages with Kylie's screen name to girls, including a field-hockey teammate, asking them out on dates.

"I was just so ashamed, humiliated and scared," Kenney said. "I couldn't understand why anyone would do this."

A poll commissioned by the Fight Crime group found that 13 million schoolchildren nationwide were bullied electronically during the past school year, and more than 2 million said they will never tell anyone about the attacks. Shurtleff said most children and teens do not know where the harassment comes from or who is doing it, but the problem can cause serious stress, and even suicide.

Kenney received professional help and changed schools twice. She was home-schooled for a semester before things subsided.

But other victims are not as lucky. Ryan Halligan, also from Vermont, was 13 years old when he hanged himself, and while his parents do not blame a specific person or action, they learned after his death of instant-message conversations that helped shed some light on the problems their son faced.

Shurtleff said a Utah man, also a victim of cyber-bullying, used the line "maybe now I'll have some peace" as the last part of his suicide note.

Shurtleff said Congress needs to pass a bill that would allow federal money to schools to help with programs aimed at preventing bullying.

"Threatening to kill Kylie is a crime," he said.

His own 11-year-old niece wanted an e-mail address and eventually got one, but she later told the attorney general that some of her friends gave it out and she got messages from people who said "mean things."

Shurtleff emphasized the difference between schoolyard bullying and cyber-bullying, in which the bullies have 24-hour access to their victims.

"I had no escape," Kenney said. "Everything followed me to school."

Darrel Stephens, chief of police for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, said the key to protecting students from cyber-bullying is to learn about it early.

"I don't think people understand the effect cyber-bullying can have," he said. "The laws have not caught up with this kind of bullying."

Although the "Kill Kylie" Web page came down soon after it was put up, it took nine months to discover who made it. Two students were suspended from school, and the police had to be called because the bullying included a death threat. Details of police action related to the students are not available because they are juveniles. But Kenney said she did not know the students beyond speaking to them once or twice.

"No one should have to go through this," Kenney said. "Schools need to be trained to know how to deal with these types of situations."

Shurtleff said Utah does not have any policy on this type of harassment or bullying, but he would like to see a resolution passed on it.

"Right now, to me the best thing to do is educate and make people aware of it," Shurtleff said. "When it comes to the Internet, parents are generally less educated than the kids. Even law enforcement officers aren't quite up to speed."

His advice? "If your kid complains about bullying, take it seriously."