BEVERLY — Two Facebook pages asking students to rate one another's looks are the latest example of the challenge schools face from social networking sites.
The pages, both called "Beverly's Finest," post side-by-side photos of middle school and high school students and ask users, "Which is finer?" The sites popped up this fall, although use appears to be slowing down. There hasn't been a post on one since late November.
School principals sent out a Connect-Ed phone message to parents late last week to alert them of the Facebook pages. Although there's nothing illegal, the pages "certainly have the potential to cause some problems," said Emily Rockwell, the coordinator of child welfare for the Beverly School District. "We haven't had a (student) complaint about it, so there's not a lot we can do. But we do have a responsibility to inform parents that they should take a look at what their kids are saying and posting."
The two Beverly's Finest Facebook pages had a total of 339 members yesterday, which is 30 fewer than last week when Beverly principals made the Connect-Ed announcement. When contacted last week, several Beverly school officials admitted that they were not aware the pages existed, and that's part of the problem: How do you monitor a couple thousand Facebook pages?
You can't, said Peabody Veterans Memorial High School Principal Ed Sapienza.
"It's like the wild, wild West out there," Sapienza said. "Now even in elementary school, and I'm talking third and fourth grade, kids are starting to learn how to do this. It's like the prank call of the 21st century ... but instead of something silly, it's derogative and offensive stuff."
Despite efforts to curtail online bullying through education, discipline and other means, some worry that it actually may be on the rise.
"The great majority of issues we have involve some sort of online problem," said Todd Bucey, the principal of Higgins Middle School in Peabody. "It's almost impossible for a kid to have a problem with another kid where it doesn't end up online or start online. There are very few 'he said/she said' situations that stay face-to-face."
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said his office has seen "an explosion in the number of complaints" relating to cyberbullying. Many of the calls are inquiries from school districts and police departments wondering if a case in their town warrants criminal investigation. The ones that do typically involve repeated harassment or identity theft — making online statements while pretending to be somebody else.
"We're seeing a rise in people doing things that can become criminal in nature," Blodgett said. "It's a new world from a generation ago. There was bullying before, but it happened on the playground; there would be a bloody nose and it would be over. Now if a child gets bullied, it can be relentless and nonstop. It's not just part of the school day but goes through the night through the computer."
Much like traditional bullying, it's likely that the cyber variety is underreported because students are afraid of retribution or afraid of bringing even more attention to themselves. Unlike traditional bullying, however, cyberbullying is much easier to perpetrate and gains a lot more attention among students.
"The effect it has is so much greater," Bucey said. "It becomes viral so quickly, and everyone sees it quickly, and it's hard to take it back."
Nowhere was that more evident than at Higgins Middle School last spring when students posted a video on Facebook of a group of students laughing at a classmate who was autistic. The police got involved, and the video was eventually taken down.
Both Beverly and Peabody high schools have had a couple of situations this year that involved online harassment where police got involved, school officials said. But for the most part, the incidents are "low-level" and resolved by talking to the students, Rockwell said.
What to do
Although Beverly school officials may agree that the "Beverly's Finest" pages are distasteful, it's not often clear what, if anything, school officials can do to stop such behavior.
"I don't know what limits schools can impose on what is essentially free speech," Blodgett said. "It's more of a civil issue."
Peabody High has had some success reducing cyberbullying with stiff punishment — including suspension — as well as educating students about how harmful cyberattacks can be. Beverly also has made strides, including training teachers as "equity coordinators" who deal with, investigate and help resolve disputes between students.
"Our kids are pretty familiar with reporting and readily express their concerns," Rockwell said. "You wouldn't believe the complaints we get — a lot of it is really low-level stuff like so-and-so deleted me as a friend. Most of the stuff we nip early, and we're not seeing a lot of repeat offenders."
In part to address the issue of cyberbullying, Massachusetts recently passed an anti-bullying law, which makes bullying prevention and resolution the duty of the schools — even if it happens outside of the classroom. Under the new law, school officials must immediately report bullying and principals are responsible for investigating and taking steps to stop it. Teachers and students will also get yearly training in cyberbullying.
While teaching students the harm cyberbullying can cause, it's ultimately going to be a losing battle unless parents are also held accountable for what their kids do on their computers, Sapienza said.
"Look at what some of these kids are posting up there and the parents aren't aware of it. Well, why aren't they aware of it?" Sapienza said, clearly frustrated. "We're looking at different channels (to deal with the issue), but Facebook is Facebook and in the end we're going to have to live with it."