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Patrick L.
Democrat VT

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  • Successful Efforts to Address Cyber Bullying

    by Senator Patrick J. Leahy

    Posted on 2014-12-12

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    LEAHY. Madam President, I want to take a moment to share with the Senate one successful story coming out of Vermont.



    [[Page S6768]] In this digital age, our children have the opportunity to communicate, to collaborate, and to connect at all times over their cell phones, tablets, social media pages and blogs. But with this limitless connectivity also comes a responsibility to make use of these technologies maturely and respectfully. In Vermont, students and their school community have boldly fought back against cyber bullying. I want to praise their efforts and call the Senate's attention to their achievement.

    Cyber bullying has become one of the most troubling threats to the safety and security of our children in this time of unprecedented digital access. Last week, students at Rutland High School were targeted online, as negative posts on an anonymous school news app were discovered. Together, students and school leaders gathered to address this negativity and to recommit themselves to building a more positive school environment. These students organized a ``Positive Post-It'' event to change the climate and then called on one another to delete the application.

    Rutland High students went further still and banded together to issue a petition to persuade Apple to take down the app so that other students would not be victimized by anonymous posts. After the gathering, Rutland High School principal Bill Olsen said on Monday ``kids left school on that day feeling very good about how they could help each other overcome such adversity.'' Governor Peter Shumlin has also touted their accomplishment.

    According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, more than 15 percent of high school students were electronically bullied in the past year. Rutland High School has gained international attention, as a wonderful example of how students have acted bravely to stand up against this trend and to hold one another accountable for a safe school space. Other States are following this trend as well. In Michigan, school leaders have also recently spoken out against the use of apps that promote anonymous, negative online behavior. The petition to remove the app has been successful, and Apple has since removed it from its online store.

    The leadership that these students have displayed is admirable, heroic, and an example to others. In recognition of their efforts, I ask unanimous consent to have an article from The Rutland Herald printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: [From the Rutland Herald, Dec. 6, 2014] RHS Rallies Against Controversial App (By Erin Mansfield) Students and faculty at Rutland High School organized this week against a controversial iPhone app they say is being used to bully students via their cellphones.

    Principal Bill Olsen said Friday he found out about the After School app Wednesday morning, when many students ended up crying in their guidance counselors' offices because of the things other students wrote about them on the Internet.

    An app, short for application, is a computer program often used on smartphones and mobile devices that can access the Internet. After School, according to the iTunes Store, works as a virtual bulletin board for posting ``funny, anonymous school news for confessions and compliments.'' But Olsen said most of the things being posted are harming students' self-esteem at school, so the administration immediately sent out a letter to parents and began asking student leaders to speak out against the app.

    Catherine DiPalma, a senior, said anyone can download the app for free through iTunes. Students log in using a Facebook account, confirm the school they attend, and begin posting anonymously.

    A cheerleader, DiPalma said she and about 25 other students involved in clubs or sports teams went on the school's video announcements Thursday morning to ask their peers to delete the app from their phones and support the kids who had their feelings hurt.

    ``Nobody wants to walk down the hall and see their friends crying,'' she said. ``Even if you're not friends with someone, we said `stand up.' '' Olsen and the student leaders then asked kids to respond by writing positive messages on colorful Post-It notes and sticking them on windows in many of the school's hallways.

    Some of the messages on the windows Friday were directed specifically to cheer up kids who had been criticized on the app, and some were compliments for their favorite teachers. Others told their peers to ``please go gay for me'' and ``nice butt.'' ``I thought it was awesome,'' said Logan Boyle, another senior who spoke with the group on the morning announcements.

    ``I think it's cool that you can walk down the hall and see all the awesome things people say rather than all the nasty things people say,'' she said.

    ``A lot of us had the app, and we were just reading it,'' she said. ``We told everyone that just by having the app and reading it, you're giving power to the people who are saying the mean things.'' Kate Herling, a RHS guidance counselor who advises a student group against cyber bullying, said bringing student leaders into their advocacy was effective.

    ``Kids were supporting one another,'' Herling said. ``Now we walk down the hall and see people smiling because maybe they found their name.'' She said, ``I felt that everyone kind of came together to really stop this and make a positive thing about such a nasty thing that really happened.'' Olsen said he and Superintendent Mary Moran have sent out letters to get the state's Agency of Education and the Vermont Superintendents Association to organize around the issue.

    They said they want local schools to gather together and pressure the app's creator to delete the software, and get Apple to take down the app from the iTunes Store. As of Friday, the store labeled the app for ``frequent/intense mature/suggestive themes,'' and for ages 17 and up.

    Rebecca Holcombe, the state's secretary of education, said Rutland City Public Schools ``is quite rightly going after it.'' She said the Agency of Education just received the district's letter and will address the concern next week.

    ``There is free speech,'' Holcombe said. ``There's also bullying, and bullying is not protected speech in school. Parents send us their children as a public trust, and one of those things is protecting them from bullying and harassment.'' ``We do honestly find it extremely troubling, and we do think it shows extremely poor judgment on the part of the company,'' she said.

    A Michigan student's petition against the app says Massachusetts-based Ambient Corporation is the developer of After School. But a company representative said Friday they have nothing to do with the app.

    The iTunes Store says ONE, Inc. holds the copyright, but that company was unable to be reached for comment.

    The After School app website says: ``We believe in free speech and the ability for people to express themselves. If you find the majority of the content too offensive, consider using your phone to instead look at cat pictures or browse a less cutting-edge social network like Facebook.'' Olsen pointed to news articles from Michigan and Minnesota, where he said schools are warning parents about the effects of the After School app on their children and encouraging them to remove it from their smartphones.

    ``Apps like this and companies that make them really should be held accountable,'' Olsen said. ``The kids set an example for the adults (on Thursday). We should do the same thing and try to fight this.'' ____________________

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