Saturday February 5, 2011

PITTSFIELD - While Berkshire County school districts step up enforcement of the state's new anti-bullying law, the Berkshire District Attorney's office is confronting an upsurge of online harassment, intimidation and abuse outside the schools.

Second Assistant District Attorney Robert W. Kinzer and his team led by Community Outreach Director Carol Mulcahy continue working with most area school districts to help them fully implement the law before the end of this year.

The detailed plans submitted by each school to the State Board of Education already are having a dramatic effect, Kinzer said.

"Students are more aware, teachers and staff are more responsive, schools are more proactive, classmates and parents are listening," he said, basing his statement on direct feedback from student advisory boards at the schools. "Before the law, it was terrible; now it's great."

The state's new anti-bullying law aims to curtail students from being harassed or beaten up at school. Several suicides have been attributed to bullying, including those of 11- year- old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield in April 2009 and 15-yearold Phoebe Prince of South Hadley in January 2010, which prompted the state to enact the new anti-bullying legislation.

Cyberbullying extends into the digital realm, where bullies harass their victims online, through e- mails or on cell phones.


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" Our training programs can have the most impact at the kindergarten and first- grade level," Kinzer said. "That's where you need to start talking about empathy, kindness, compassion, caring and sharing. That's where we're going to see the biggest change."

He said high school students tend to tune out, despite intensive efforts to engage them in the discussion.

Also, getting parents to attend one-hour in-school presentations on Internet harassment continues to be a major challenge, Kinzer said. He cited a program at Taconic High School that attracted only 23 parents despite incentives such as a raffle for three free iPods.

A recent early-evening presentation at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School was canceled when only five parents showed up. The school system has an anti- bullying task force and a comprehensive strategy to combat verbal, physical or psychological harassment.

In addition to denial by some parents about the reality of the cyberbullying problem, Kinzer listed other factors while acknowledging there's always a healthy turnout for sports events.

"Part of it could be a fear of technology, a lack of understanding by parents of the Internet and computers," he said. "Parents say they trust their child and believe they'll never do anything wrong."

But he has had positive feedback from 15- minute video presentations prepared by the DA's office and available on local public- access TV and online.

Kinzer emphasizes the threat of cyberbullying, especially the dangers of Facebook and other social networks, because children are immersed in the digital age even at the age of 5. By high school, some students claim 600, even 700, online "friends."

"I absolutely think it's our next frontier that we need to gear up for," he said, stressing that parents, school officials and young people have to be equally involved.

"Technology is a tremendous educational tool," he said. "But it connects them to people they don't know, to bad things, so we have to educate them about responsible use. Kids don't even talk to each other half the time; they text message or instant message. They go out into the world and they don't know how to have a conversation, how to act in a job interview, how to communicate. They become isolated, desensitized to personal interaction, almost.

"I tell superintendents that cell phones should be banned from school, period," Kinzer said. But they get resistance from many parents who feel their youngsters must be reachable through cheap, easily available camera-, videoand Internet- enabled cell phones, even during classroom time.

"We all got through school without cell phones and we survived," the 39- year- old assistant DA said wryly.

At the Dalton-based Central Berkshire Regional School District last September, Kinzer recalled, parents were "tricked" into attending one of his sessions by incorporating it into a meet-the-teachers open house at Nessacus Middle School. The result was a full house, and he said parents voiced appreciation for the presentation.

" We encourage schools to say the word ' mandatory,'" Mulcahy said. "Schools realize it's in their best interest to do what they can to engage the parents."

Presentations requested by the school districts require a multi- day program involving "anyone and everyone who has contact with students," Kinzer said.

The DA's office has worked with 30 Berkshire public and private schools at all grade levels since September, said Mulcahy. In all, 1,749 students (three-quarters of them at the elementary level) and nearly 1,000 staff members have attended training sessions, but there have only about a dozen programs for parents. About 80 percent of the county's schools have sought guidance, resulting in 60 separate training sessions for students.