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Bullies going hi-tech

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story on a new area of discipline in public schools. The second part will appear in Sunday’s paper.

In the 21st century, old problems take on new looks. Bullying now has an added dimension — cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying involves the use of computers to harass other students, according to Kevin Matsunaga. Matsunaga teaches a media course at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School and handles the technology program, overseeing purchases, set-up, and maintenance. He also is the Kauai District support person for various on-line programs, including the academic and financial plans Web sites.

Cyberbullying can be done through e-mail, instant messaging, chat programs and message boards, Matsunaga said. The vice principals, who handle discipline issues at Chiefess, have asked him on occasion for assistance in trying to identify the source when students report receiving harassing messages.

Matsunaga says it is difficult. Students are not issued e-mail accounts in school, but they can get to their e-mail accounts through Hotmail and Yahoo, which are not blocked sites. Matsunaga said he can pull up a student’s account and get a history of the sites visited via the Web browser. The information may not include the identity of the sender.

When messages are received at home or on cell phones, the school advises parents to call the police.

Detective Eric Shibuya is a member of the Kauai Investigative Services Bureau, Youth Services in charge of Internet crimes. He is also a member of the Hawaii Internet Crimes Against Children unit. Shibuya said, in a telephone interview, that he is seeing an increase in cyberbullying, or harassment via e-mail. At this time last year, there were no reports. Now there are several, he said.

The majority of the reports involving juveniles are being made by parents. Shibuya said he can trace messages to the original IP (a code made up of numbers separated by three dots that identifies a particular computer on the Internet) because he can subpoena the service provider. He may not be able to identify the person through the IP address, but through investigation he is able to uncover the identity of the person sending the harassing messages.

Kauai’s representative on the Board of Education Maggie Cox wrote in an e-mail message that the BOE has received complaints from parents, students, and community members regarding specific incidents of fights, bullying, etc. In an attempt to be proactive, the BOE is looking for solutions. It has created an ad hoc committee on school safety and will have its first meeting on May 30. Cox is a member of that committee.

Matsunaga said one of the most popular message board type Web sites is MySpace.com. MySpace.com describes itself as a “social networking service that allows members to create unique personal profiles online in order to find and communicate with old and new friends.”

Although the MySpace.com terms of agreement specifies that members need to be at least 14 years old, Matsunaga says it is easy to input a fake birthdate and create a fake account. Matsunaga has visited the site and has found middle school students with profiles that reveal too much information.

Although the MySpace.com terms of agreement specifically states the profile “may not include telephone numbers, street addresses, last names, photographs containing nudity, or obscene, lewd, excessively violent, harassing, sexually explicit or otherwise objectionable subject matter,” Matsunaga said the Web site is not policed well.

MySpace.com assumes “no responsibility or liability” for material in the profiles the terms state.

Acting Principal at Kapa‘a Middle School Jason Kuloloia said a female student gave her MySpace.com password to her friends. One of them went to her MySpace.com profile and using her password, was able to change things so it looked like she was saying nasty things about other students.

Matsunaga said he can understand why students are attracted to MySpace.com. It is easy to add music and photographs and color and special effects. You can blog, which is an online journal, and make a lot of friends.

Middle school students are concerned with peer relationships and one feature of MySpace.com is requesting a member to accept you as a “friend.” One profile indicated over 600 friends. Matsunaga said this feature also means that if you get on one person’s “friend list,” you can then get into another person’s friend list, then another. This gives anyone wide access to many people worldwide.

Middle school students think that’s great, but it also means someone with bad intentions can get access to them, Matsunaga said. “It’s also scary how easy it is to get online and be able to post pictures and say things,” Matsunaga said. “Schools have banned cell phones in locker rooms because of incidents of students taking pictures using cell phones and posting those pictures on the Internet.”

Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School does not allow cell phones to be used on campus, but students still have them, in backpacks or bags, Matsunaga said.

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at aharju@kauaipubco.com.

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