A Cobb County couple will be among dozens of esteemed experts sharing their cyber bullying expertise next week at an international conference in Seattle sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation.
Author and Cobb County Schools prevention specialist Patricia Agatston and her husband Andrew, a Marietta-based attorney, are taking part in the Seventh Annual Conference of the International Bullying Prevention Association November 15 – 17. The parents of two teenage boys will join panelists who hail from across the country and around the globe. Mrs. Agatston, a certified trainer and consultant for a bullying prevention program is a fixture on the cyber bullying speakers circuit and is regularly featured in local and national media discussing high-risk youth behavior online.
“The main thing I want to get across is that addressing a bullying problem at school requires taking a very systemic approach,” says Mrs. Agatston, co-author of the book, Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, and author of two curricula on cyber bullying for Cobb schools. “Teachers, students, school administrators and parents must be involved. The process begins with an assessment and a survey of what’s going on in your school. The information that the kids report must be used to design your program.”
Mrs. Agatston, a licensed professional counselor, will be presenting on two panels this year: one on cyber bullying and another on “youth risk online.”
“A lot of young people think that they can say whatever they want to online, especially if it’s anonymous,” she says. “They don’t understand that you can’t threaten to kill someone online. Under Georgia law they can be charged with making terroristic threats and that is a very serious offense. The issue of sexting can be a form of bullying as well. A lot of kids don’t realize that it is illegal to send nude photos of a child and that can land them into lots of serious trouble.”
Mr. Agatston will be discussing the topic from the legal perspective of an attorney who brings claims on behalf of students and others who are bullied.
“Bullying has been around a long time, but cyber bullying has not and the laws have been slow to catch up with this trend,” he says. “A lot of the legal process entails finding the laws in place that apply [to a cyber bullying situation]. A lot of them are dead-enders; you won’t win. That’s two years out of a kid’s life and all they wanted was for [the bullying] to stop.”
Mrs. Agatston says around 2005 she noticed a marked increase in electronic bullying incidents among young people. In her efforts to find solutions, she discovered the Olweus Program, a comprehensive, school-wide program designed to reduce and prevent bullying problems among students and to improve peer relations overall. Now a certified Olweus trainer, she says, the conference was born out of fellow trainers lobbying for an annual forum.
“The first couple [conferences] were held in Atlanta and then [organizers] started noticing a lot of international participants from places like Australia, England and Japan,” says Mrs. Agatston a member of the association’s board. “Then they decided to make it an international conference. We have presenters from all over the world this year, including Italy and Scotland.”
Under the theme “The Challenge and Promise of the Cyberworld,” this year’s event will feature presentations and the latest research about bullying and other internet-based concerns, including cyber bullying, threats, sexting and social networking bullying, along with other online risks that affect young people. Session topics include Bullying Prevention 101, Youth Risk Online: Issues and Solutions, The Online Experience of Adolescent Girls and Research on Internet Victimization of Youth: Implications for Prevention.
Mr. Agatston emphasizes that a lawsuit may not always be the best avenue for parents to pursue.
“Trying to get [the bullying] to stop is just as important as the safety and well being of the child,” he says. “You have to think about the child having to deal with the situation of being bullied and then having to deal with a lawsuit at the same time. A lot of times it adds to the stress of the child and that can be counterproductive.”
Mr. Agatston says there are times that a lawsuit is necessary, but other options should be explored first, like assembling a support network for the child. For parents who do move forward with legal action, he warns that a legal victory may not be easy.
“A lot of times when you look at the laws that exist, many are not viable options,” he says. “In some instances lawsuits are pursued and they will lose under certain theories like sovereign immunity, which applies to school systems. There are real world concerns and risks that people need to know about before filing a lawsuit.”
Overall, the Agatstons agree that parents must do their part to help protect their children from the serious consequences of cyber bullying.
“Before parents give their kids these electronic devices they need to talk to them and explain what to do and what not to do with them and the consequences of their actions,” she says. “Parents need to play a role and emphasize that they should not be used to harm others. Encourage your children to treat people how you want to be treated.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.