Tucson Police: cyberbullying connected to 4 student suicides this year

A TPD officer addresses a TUSD class about the dangers of cyberbullying

Tucson Police: cyberbullying connected to 4 student suicides this year

CREATED Feb 7, 2012

Reporter: Valerie Cavazos

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - According to police, In Tucson alone, there have been 4 teen suicides since the start of the school year. Police say vicious online taunts were behind the deaths. Despite all the attention given to cyberbullying over the past several years, recent surveys show that online attacks have risen as a result of the social-networking craze, with pre-teens and teens being some of the worst offenders.

Christina Hamill is the mother of 6th grader, Alezia Hamill. "I'm sorry, this is so hard for me, " she said tearfully. "I don't understand how kids could be so mean." Hamill's reaction is typical of many parents whose children have been bullied -- verbally, physically or digitally. She said her daughter, Alezia, experienced them all at Carson Middle School -- beginning with an incident that happened just after school let out. "She started to walk to my mom's van and one of the girls started butting her in the chest. Another girl hit her and all these girls started jumping on top of her."

University of Arizona professor Sheri Bauman is an international expert on bullying. Her research shows most students are reluctant to report bullying -- to their parents and to their schools -- for good reason.

"Alezia thought it would cause more problems," said Hamill. Bauman says Alezia's fear was well-founded. Word of the attack spread quickly on Facebook.

Bauman said, "They can now have larger audiences, constant access." And more attackers as they protect themselves from pangs of guilt while hiding behind the technology.

Alezia and her mother tracked the digital taunts -- and printed them -- at the request of the principal who wanted proof. The postings and instant messages were filled with foul language. "Name calling and putting her down. Pretty much belittling her," said Hamill.

Hamill said the principal pulled Alezia and her attackers into mediation sessions -- resulting in some in-school suspensions. She also called the police and filed charges.

When KGUN9 listed the steps the mother took to help her daughter stop the online attacks, Bauman responded, "It sounded like the parent did everything that's reasonable."
Despite her effort to help her daughter, Hamill said that it wasn't working. "It's not helping. It's not lightening the situation," she said.

Bauman explained why some measures may not work. "So our tendency to apply punitive measures often backfires. As the student feared, they will retaliate, they'll be more secretive about it. They will resent the target even further because of getting them in trouble."

Fustrated, Hamill said she was at the point now where she plans to deactivate her daughter's Facebook account. But Bauman warns that students often would rather be tormented than give up their technology. "To them, it's cutting off their social world."

And when adolescents face this relentless public humiliation alone, Bauman said, " They can't imagine that time will heal this or they can find a way to hold the other person accountable. Then the only answer that makes sense to them is to die."

That's why Bauman says schools need to design a systematic plan that creates a climate of civility on campus. "Where kids don't want to see that kind of behavior. So more kids have the courage to speak up. We need to raise the awareness that kids have much more power over each other at that age." And they have a voice.

Sahuaro High School invites police each year to talk to 9th and 10th graders about the effects and consequences of bullying. When the session was over, students voiced their concerns after we shut off the cameras. When KGUN 9 asked who they thought would have the most impact in curtailing cyberbullying, most answered - students. They felt too many of their peers engage in or encourage abusive behavior, on and off campus, because they think it's funny or entertaining.
Most experts agree that a crucial component in helping to curtail cyberbullying is the parent, because they can help their children cope with problems and search for solutions before the cyberbullying spirals out of control. TPD Officer Pablo Camargo told KGUN 9, "The parents need to really, really watch what's going on because a lot of it is really inappropriate and also what's going on at school and (parents) really need to be proactive about everything."

Hamill said, "I'm not a perfect parent, but I know to keep any eye out -- especially at this age." KGUN9 asked Hamill if she monitors her daughter's facebook. Her answer: "Yes I do, constantly. So I know what's coming in and (going) out."

Bauman said, "We're always playing catch-up and we need to get ahead of the game a little bit."

Arizona's law requires school districts to have anti-bullying polices and procedures, but it does not address cyberbullying - on or off campus. Since online attacks can have a disruptive effect on children's learning environments, many experts say schools districts and parents need more tools and training to help tackle the problem.

Did you know: Recent surveys show --

  • 43% of teens have been victims of cyberbullying in the last year.
  • Almost 80% of teens said they either did not have parental rules about internet use or found ways around the rules.
  • 81% of youth said that others cyberbully because they think it's funny.
  • Only 11 percent of teens talked to parents about incidents of cyberbullying.

More information and tools on addressing cyberbullying:

For Parents:
Rules of the Road for Parents in a Digital Age
Stop Cyberbullying.com
Stop Cyberbullying.org
National Crime Prevention Council: Cyberbullying Information
Tips for Kids, Teens, and Parents

For Kids:
Brain Pop Video on Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying Quiz
Choose Friendship Video on Bullying