The exchange between the Echols Middle School students soon turned sour. The classmate criticized Rachel, 13, for a comment she left on another girl’s photo, and the messages became insulting.
A few days later, one of the other girl’s friends created a Facebook page called “I Hate Rachel Smith.”
Between 50 and 70 classmates joined. They called Rachel fat. They called her ugly. They called her a lesbian — she’s not.
Rachel wrote the girl, asking her to take the page down. Rachel’s mother, Peggy, reported the group to Facebook administrators, and it was eventually removed. Her own friends created a group called “Rachel Smith is Loved.”
Months later, the relationship between the girls is still tense.
“It’s just drama,” Rachel said. “I’m pretty sure that everyone in the eighth grade knows the situation. I just try to ignore it. I wish I could change schools.”
Bullying has become an increasing problem for school officials nationwide than perhaps ever before.
Because so many teens are tech-savvy, most of the bullying has been cyberbullying, either through cellphone text messages or online social networking sites. Some cases have led to teenagers killing themselves, in some cases because they were being bullied.
The Alabama Legislature has tried to crack down on bullying, passing the Student Harassment Prevention Act, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2009.
The Student Harassment Prevention Act requires that all public school systems in the state adopt policies to prevent students from being bullied, defined as being harassed, intimidated, threatened or hurt in an act of violence by other students.
The law also requires schools to document incidents of bullying.
Greg Hurst, coordinator of student services for the Tuscaloosa County School System, said that in the 2010-11 school year, there were 51 incidents of bullying and harassment in the Tuscaloosa County School System.
So far this school year, there have been 12 documented incidents of bullying and harassment, Hurst said.
He said that none of the incidents were classified as cyberbullying. Four of the incidents led to suspensions.
Vickie Brown, director of student services for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, said that in the city system, there were 22 incidents of threats or intimidation and 84 incidents of harassment that resulted in out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-11 school year.
So far this school year, there have been 41 reports of bullying or threats, Brown said.
She said cyberbullying is not documented separately from other types of bullying, so she couldn’t provide the number of incidents in the city school system that involved cyberbullying, but she did say there have been more cases of it.
“Cyberbullying is certainly an area that has increased over the past few years and is an area we are addressing frequently in the school setting,” Brown said in a written statement.
Despite school officials’ efforts, some parents say it’s not enough. Peggy Smith said she has complained to her daughter’s school about continued harassment of her daughter. Rachel and the other girl are in the same gym class, and have had unpleasant exchanges in the locker room, where there is no adult supervision. Smith said she called the school resource officer after the other girl allegedly threatened Rachel, who was in turn blamed for a prank phone call. Both girls were warned, but no further action was taken.
“They’ve called my daughter a drama queen,” she said of school officials. “Her grades have fallen because of this. It’s just devastating that she’s tormented every day.”
Both school systems, however, say they have done a lot to try to end bullying in school.
Hurst said the county has started educating students about bullying and cyberbullying, provided small group counseling for students at Davis Emerson Middle School twice a week, educated teachers about bullying and created a committee of school district leaders who are creating procedures to assist with appropriate use of social networking and prohibit cyberbullying.
“The Tuscaloosa County School System, students, parents and community will continue our relentless pursuit to decrease bullying in all schools,” Hurst said in a written statement. “Children go to school to learn and should be allowed to do so in a safe environment. Therefore, it is everyone’s goal to make sure that our students are safe and protected.”
Since the state’s student harassment law went into effect, the city school system has revised its anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies by extending the system’s jurisdiction beyond school.
“Since cyberbullying is on the rise, we may have a situation that manifest itself at school the next day such as a fight that originated on Facebook the night before,” Brown said. “(The jurisdiction extension) allows the school system to deal with issues that affect the educational process, even if they did not initially occur during the instructional day.”
The city system has also trained its employees how to report cases of bullying and harassment, hosted community forums to raise awareness about bullying and trained people on how to deal with it. The system has also sent Brown to a national training session on preventing bullying. The training was conducted by Dennis Lewis, who is considered a national leader in providing training on establishing and maintaining safe schools.
Brown said she plans to teach what she learned there to other administrators in the system.
“The administration of Tuscaloosa City Schools is making every effort to ensure a safe learning environment is provided for every student in our district by aggressively addressing the area of bullying and harassment in our system by creating a positive school climate,” Brown said. “We want to be proactive, not just reactive.”
Reach Stephanie Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0210. Reach Jamon Smith at email@example.com or 205-722-0204.