Local public schools address cyberbullying policies


MISSOULA, Mont. - NBC Montana sat down with local schools to learn how they address cyberbullying after a Texas teen took her own life following months of online harassment.

"I wish I could tell you we never have any instances of cyber bullying, but that simply wouldn't be the case," said Hellgate Schools Superintendent Dr. Doug Reisig.

Reisig says Hellgate Schools follow a national policy from the U.S. Department of Education called Olweus. The anti-bullying program focuses on building strong relationships between students, teachers, parents and community members to address any issue as soon as possible in order to minimize damage.

Reisig says cyberbullying can start as young as third grade.

"A lot of the problems that we see with cyberbullying don't start inside the school, they start outside the school. But the damage to a child spills into the school," Reisig added. "That's why we really try to work with our kids on how damaging and how hurtful and how tough it is to piece a child back together that's been a victim of (bullying)."

Hellgate adopted the Olweus policy after a bullying incident a few years back.

"Our school board vowed we weren't going back there. It wasn't going to happen again, and it was our job to try to find ways to put programs in place that would help educate our kids as well as educate ourselves," Reisig said.

Under the Olweus policy a school establishes a specific bullying prevention committee. Hellgate's comprises two school psychologists, four counselors and all their staff. Instructors teach kids throughout the year about bullying policies and how damaging it can be to their peers' mental health. Students and teachers then meet in small groups weekly to develop personal relationships, so students feel comfortable opening up about a problem. The program also involves parents in the process.

Read the entire Olweus anti-bullying policy here

"If (kids) aren't comfortable in reporting (bullying), we're not going to know until maybe it's too late," said Reisig.

Reisig says bullying -- especially cyberbullying -- largely goes unreported. That's why he encourages parents to practice open communication with their kids. He says if parents suspect any problems they should let school administrators know right away, because they are equipped with the tools to address any problems. Reisig says it's the schools job to help kids find a healthy outlet when they have nowhere else to turn.

"And interestingly enough, a lot of times a child is more comfortable talking with their teacher (instead of their parents)," Reisig added.

Reisig says Hellgate has also brought in local Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force members to speak to students, parents and administrators.

Missoula County Public Schools follows a similar policy. Communications director Hatton Littman says they follow the Common Sense Media Anti-Cyberbullying Toolkit.

They say the approach is proactive and first sets a standard of behavior and rewards students who follow it accordingly.

Littman says they also have IT teams that monitor usage and messages on school computers and student email accounts.

The state of Montana's Office of Public Instruction does not have a statewide public school policy on cyberbullying. Emilie Ritters Saunders, the communications director for Superintendent of Public Schools Denise Juneau's office, says each district is responsible for its own plan.

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