Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series examining bullying in Aiken County and what resources are available in the community to alleviate the problem.
The proliferation of technology and social media has put a world of news and headlines on bullying at people's fingertips. The same technology has also made it easier for bullies to carry out their acts – and virtually impossible for their victims to escape them.
Police have said two students who killed 12 of their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 were bullied at some point. A 12-year-old Florida girl committed suicide in September after reportedly being bullied by two female students, both of whom have since been arrested on aggravated stalking charges. A 14-year-old boy from Buffalo, N.Y., committed suicide in 2011 after being bullied online for more than a year. His suicide sparked a police investigation; however, no charges were ever filed.
When does it become criminal?
Lt. Karl Odenthal, of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, can't recall any cases of bullying as severe as those in the Aiken area, but said bullying does happen, especially with the advent and growing popularity of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
Odenthal said a majority of cases related to bullying are handled by school resource officers.
“A lot of times it's, 'Somebody said something about me on Facebook,' or, 'They heard this from that,'” he said. “It can lead to a fight at school or on the bus.”
A majority of states, including South Carolina, have anti-bullying laws of some form.
The Safe School Climate Act was signed into law in South Carolina in 2006 and was designed to limit and punish “harassment, intimidation or bullying” in schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers bullying, particularly among school-age children, a major public health problem.
According to a study by the Center, nearly 30 percent of American adolescents reported at least “moderate” bullying experiences as the bully, the victim or both.
Bullying happens, but when does it go from “pre-teen drama” or “kids being kids” to criminal activity?
Fighting with or even striking another student can lead to charges of assault or disorderly conduct. But bullying can lead to criminal charges without physical contact.
“It becomes criminal when it becomes a threat,” Odenthal said. “If you're threatening somebody (over the phone) – 'I'm gonna kick your butt after school' – it actually falls under the statute of illegal use of a telephone.”
That statute also covers electronic communication, including emails, text and voicemail messages. If there is unwanted contact, physical or electronic, at school, Odenthal said it's best to get the school resource officer involved.
“If it's something where they feel unsafe walking home, or if they go to McDonald's and feel like this person's going to jump on them, that would be the time to call Public Safety or the Sheriff's Office, whatever jurisdiction you're in,” he said.
Social media makes it easier
The Internet makes it easier to bully, and to do so anonymously, Odenthal said.
“It makes it easier for some to sit back and have the courage to do it from their computer at home,” Odenthal said. “You don't have to do it face to face. They can't hit me through the computer.”
Another digital trend contributing to bullying is sexting, or sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, usually by cellphone. Odenthal said it's common among school-age children, particularly those in romantic relationships.
“Somebody breaks up and they've got a naked picture of somebody,” he said. “That comes up more frequently than we'd like. Once you send a picture of yourself naked to somebody, that's around for a while.”
While electronics and digital media have made bullying easier, it also makes it easier to document the incidents and press criminal charges.
Odenthal said he is surprised by how frequently people leave voicemails on someone's phone cursing, which is also a crime.
“You can't get any better physical evidence than that,” he said. “I can take a recording of that straight to court and get a conviction every time.”
A challenge in bringing charges with cyberbullying cases is proving that a message came from a suspect, Odenthal said.
What can you do?
One of the best ways parents can catch bullying in children is to stay involved in their kids' lives, including their lives online, Odenthal said.
“Technology is out there,” he said. “What parents can do is monitor their kids' activities. The best thing is knowing who their friends are and who they're hanging out with.
“It's the hardest thing to do once they get into high school,” he added.
Facebook, the pinnacle of social networking sites, has more than 1.5 billion users worldwide. The site allows users access who claim to be 13 or older, but more than 5 million accounts are with children younger than 13, according to Consumer Reports.
Facebook has created a page dedicated solely to spotting, dealing with and preventing online bullying. It includes common questions asked by teenagers and parents on a variety of problems and can be accessed even if you don't have a Facebook account.
Software available through Aiken Public Safety called ComputerCop allows parents to monitor their children's computer activities. Running the software on a computer will tell the parent what websites their children have visited, what pictures or videos they view or download and how much information they share on the web.
A program through Aiken Public Safety called the Parent Project also touches on the topic of bullying and how parents can deal with it.
For more information about bullying, the Parent Project or ComputerCop, call Capt. Mary Ann Burgess of juvenile services at 803-642-7667.
Odenthal said one of the best things a parent can do, though, is spend time with their child and keep asking questions.
“You've got to be able to spend enough time with your kids so you know what's going on in their lives,” he said. “Give them the opportunity to talk to you. That's when it's gonna come out, 'Hey, Dad, this guy is really bothering me.' Get away from the TV, get away from the computer. Whether it's a walk in Hitchcock Woods, driving to Lowe's or going to the grocery store together – that's where it happens.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard.
He has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.