By Jenni Vincent
SPRING MILLS - U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito wore more than one hat at Monday's anti-bullying and cyberbullying forum, an opportunity for Eastern Panhandle educators to collectively discuss these problems.
A concerned mother of three adult children, Capito said she's already worried about her young grandchildren and what awaits them as they grow older.
Capito, who organized the afternoon meeting held at Spring Mills High School, said she'd hosted a similar session in Kanawha County late last year and was happy with the response shown there.
That interest was echoed locally as all three Eastern Panhandle counties - including Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan - sent representatives, including administrators, principals, teachers, counselors and others who work within the region's school districts. As a group and in a closed session, the educators listened to a presentation by a representative from Google and also discussed their school's particular concerns and cases of cyberbullying.
Prior to going into the closed session, Capito recalled a case in Florida where a young girl had committed suicide after being subjected to especially aggressive cyberbullying by other girls. Capito said she was touched as a citizen, parent and an official charged with helping make policy to protect the collective good.
"And the sad news is that this is happening at younger and younger ages. We've just got to find some preventive measures," she said.
Her family concerns were echoed by Berkeley County superintendent Manny Arvon, who said he's had similar discussions since his first grandchild was born late last year.
"That was a life-changing moment for me and I can't help but wonder what the technology will be like when my granddaughter starts school," he said.
A veteran educator and administrator, Arvon recalled when bully was "face to face, he said/she said and you just called students into the office to handle it."
Technology now means a nasty remark can be seen almost instantly by thousands of people, Arvon said, adding, "Out of all the challenges we face, cyberbullying is probably the most difficult for us to manage and control."
Morgan County superintendent David Banks said his smaller (approximately 2,600 students), more rural district has had some of these types of problems. As a result, his district believes in being "proactive" when it comes to helping students understand the inappropriate use of technology and social media, Banks said.
He said the district employs social worker Gary McDaniel, who attended the forum, and who spends part of his time teaching students about how to use social media wisely as well as how to avoid becoming a victim of online abuse.
"We also have a little bit different of a philosophy because we believe staff, including teachers and counselors, should be on the Internet and should be friends with students. That way we can keep a better eye on them on these social media sites," Banks said.
Juniors Kara Iden and Austin Custer, who helped greet visitors as they entered the school, both agreed more needs to be done to address cyberbullying.
"Cyberbullying is a pretty big deal to me. I hate it when I see it, and I do see it. It is on all types of social media - not just Facebook and Twitter. But what's really bad is how it tends to spread around from one site to another, getting worse as it goes and that is really hurtful," Iden said.
Anonymity is one of the worst parts about it, Custer said, adding, "It's a lot easier for someone over a computer to pick on someone and then hide behind a fake or screen name."
Following the session, Ranson Elementary School Principal Debra Corbett, who was accompanied by counselor Joe Shepherd, said she had learned more about the nature of cyberbullying as well as ways for dealing - and hopefully preventing it.
"Tips that we can give not only to the kids but also to the parents about using the Internet and other digital devices," Corbett said, adding that conflict resolution is also an important tool.
"But you really have to take time with the kids so they know what is acceptable and what isn't," she said.
Shepherd said he believes now, more than ever, that being proactive is an important key.
"For example, catching it as a conflict before something turns into bullying - especially at the elementary level, which is where it can start with the older kids," he said.
Berkeley Springs High School Principal Lance Fox, also speaking after the forum, said he also believes it is important to be proactive with students - lessons that include teaching them what cyberbullying is, what they can and can't do legally and how to report problems when they occur.
"One of the main things I learned out of this from listening to the Google representative is that they have preventive sessions they can do with kids. So part of their presentation was to also show us what we can do with kids," Fox said.
"For example, one of the things I realized is that most kids don't know how to report it if they're being harassed. That's important because someone could write something hateful or inappropriate at night and it could still impact the school the next day," he said.
Spring Mills High principal Marc Arvon said he and the other participants learned they have a "common problem" that needs to be attacked through awareness and education.
"Many times a student might do something like this and really not realize the impact it has on someone else. They really don't think through it, but the comments are so hurtful they can end up damaging everything from school attendance to self esteem. These are all real concerns for us as educators," Arvon said.