Parents Learn to Spot and Stop Cyberbullying in Warwick, RI

As technology becomes increasingly present in the lives of children, educators are faced with an enemy they cannot see. Cyberbullying is becoming a problem in Warwick schools, and educators feel the solution starts at home.

“The incidences of cyberbullying that are spilling over into school have grown dramatically over the last two or three years,” said Toll Gate Assistant Principal Candace Caluori. “Even though it happens outside of school, the push-back or the spillover happens here, where they see each other, and we’ve found that nine times out of 10, parents had no clue that this was going on under their own roof.”

To educate parents on how to spot and prevent cyberbullying, the Warwick Youth Programs Advisory and Prevention Committee will host an informational seminar on Thursday, Jan. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Toll Gate High School.

The event is open to all parents in Warwick, and will feature keynote speaker Dr. Lawrence Filippelli, the assistant superintendent in Scituate, and a former student of Caluori’s. Filippelli is the district supervisor of the Crisis Response Team for Scituate, and has experience training other educators on crisis mitigation and the death of a student.

As an adjunct professor of technology at Johnson & Wales University, Filippelli is familiar with technology’s influence on the classroom. He was recently appointed to the Rhode Island Senate’s special commission on Cyberbullying, Cyberthreats and Sexting.

“We’re starting to see it as early as fourth grade. The one big problem is that kids don’t say a word about it because they’re afraid that their Internet access is going to be cut off,” Filippelli said.

In his experience, the symptoms of cyberbullying mirror those of drug and alcohol abuse. Filippelli says parents should be on the lookout for a drop in grades, a lack of enthusiasm and their child ending relationships with friends they associated with in the past.

Cyberbullying comes in many forms, from threatening text messages, harassing e-mails or the exchange of explicit messages or images electronically, known as “sexting.” School Resource Officers in Warwick are finding that without the threat of immediate retaliation, and often with the veil of anonymity, students have the courage to engage in cyberbullying.

“They have access to each other 24 hours a day now and it seems that a lot of it is going unmonitored,” Caluori said.

At Toll Gate, she held assemblies to warn students about cyberbullying. She praised the mayor for his advocacy on the subject, but said it will take the education of parents to make serious strides.

“We have to partner together,” she said. “I think so many parents are working so hard that they don’t have the time to learn [the technology], and I have to say the other part is these kids are so smart they get around it.”

Part of the problem, Filippelli warns, is that computer access is no longer limited to a family room in many cases. Children have computers of their own, or take the family laptop to an area where their parents cannot look over their shoulders. He recommends keeping Internet use to set times so parents can monitor their child’s online behavior, and also discussing what is or what is not appropriate to put online.

He also says parents should not be afraid to demand full access to their child’s online world, including text messages, Facebook profiles and e-mail accounts.

“You have the roof over their head, you purchased the phone, you pay for the service…all of that can disappear,” he said.

According to administrators, it can take between two to four hours to resolve a single instance of cyberbullying. Discipline, however, is a challenge, because schools are limited to issues that directly impact the educational environment. That’s why parent education is so important, he said. Warwick’s Director of Family Support Services Patricia St. Amant said that parent involvement is the direction she hopes to take the Prevention Committee.

“Every school I’ve spoken to, along with the middle schools, have agreed that there has been an increase in these events,” St. Amant said. “All of these events are taking place 24/7 and mom and dad want us to fix it, but we’ve got to get these parents involved.”

“I think there’s a disconnect. I wish parents would wake up and recognize what is going on,” agreed St. Amant.

Thursday’s seminar is supported in part by MetLife, the Warwick Beacon, the Warwick School Department and the Warwick Police Department. Mayor Scott Avedisian, who formed the Prevention Committee, sent letters out to parents inviting them to the event. He will be at the seminar, where parents can learn more about the Internet, social networking sites and how to find out more about their child’s online world.

“The cyberbullying seminar is an important way for my administration, the police department and the school department to educate parents as to the severity of what is happening in schools today. More often than not, school administrators are spending a large amount of time dealing with disciplinary actions for things that happened not at school but online,” Avedisian said. “The goal here is to let parents know what is taking place, share strategies for curbing the problem and assure parents that they are not the only family dealing with such issues.”

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