Fighting bullying takes cyber-savvy

Most parents of sixth-grade students don't quite grasp the technological tools that can be used to harass kids these days, Newport Beach crime prevention specialist Erica Sperling said.

But as she goes about her work, visiting middle schools to talk about bullying, she sees that the tech-savvy kids certainly do, she said.

"It's not just sending an email any more," she said. "Most kids aren't even on email. It's all Snapchat, Instagram."

If they want to fight bullying on a cyber front, parents and schools need to understand those two photo-sharing social networks and the host of new communication methods, she said.

"It's really easy to say something mean you wouldn't [say] in person," she said.

At a small seminar at Harbor View Elementary School on Tuesday, three Newport Beach police officials outlined their experiences with bullying in the local school system and what parents can do to fight the problem.

That task started with defining "bullying."

"It's such a catchphrase these days," school resource officer Vlad Anderson said.

But he explained that true bullying is a deliberately hurtful act, usually repeated, and it involves some imbalance of power between the aggressor and victim.

When those factors align, the situation can be extremely harmful and involve multiple students.

"There is a way things evolve when there is a bullying incident," Anderson said.

He showed a diagram of an aggressor, a victim and other students who either tacitly or actively condone the bullying by participating, taking pictures or just watching.

"It's almost like a mob mentality," he said.

Anderson and Sperling repeatedly returned to themes of observation and engagement to confront bullying: finding out information from kids and talking through the issue with students, teachers and other parents.

"And there is no magic," Sperling said. "That's the hardest part"

Watching for warning signs like withdrawal and then broaching the topic of bullying is key, she said.

That vigilance must extend to the online world, said Dave Syvock, a special victims unit detective who works on sexual cases that involve juveniles.

Anything a child posts online can end up in the hands of a bully or a predator, he said.

"For some reason now, the bathroom has become the 20th-century photo booth," Syvock said.

He advised parents that if they took nothing else from the seminar, they should remember one piece of advice:

"If you ever see your child going to the bathroom with any kind of device with access to the Internet, please stop them and take it away from them," he said.

Principal Todd Schmidt said he asked the Newport Beach Police Department to put on the seminar after at least 20 parents came to him asking how to deal with bullying incidents at Harbor View or in anticipation of their children moving up to middle school.

But fewer than 10 parents attended Tuesday's event.

"I'm just surprised by this," Schmidt said, expressing his disappointment at the turnout.

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