By Charlotte Helston
When Const. Kathy Szoboticsanec called in the student responsible for creating a Facebook page filled with violent threats, she couldn't help but expect a tough and hardened individual. What appeared timidly before her was a soft-spoken grade eight girl.
"She was the cutest sweetest little thing," Szoboticsanec says. "When I asked her to repeat out loud what she had written, she had a very difficult time saying it."
The situation is just one example of a new trend in cyber bullying. Since beginning her role as school liaison five years ago, Szoboticsanec has witnessed cyber bullying become endemic in high schools and elementary playgrounds. The landscape of bullying has morphed from notes sent by paper airplane to text messages and Facebook pages replete with not-so-innocent content.
"Who'd have thought ten years ago that this would happen?" Szoboticsanec says. "These kids are saying awful things that aren't necessarily criminal, but they really hurt. These words have become so normalized."
And like the grade eight girl learned, it's easier to type the words than to say them out loud.
Szoboticsanec watched cyber bullying take root in the high school environment and eventually spread to younger grades as well. She says the situation has reached a new high in recent months, leaving her busier than ever.
"In October and November, it was systemic," she says. "I was holding school assemblies because there was such a spike."
And while the situation has been reined in somewhat by educational talks, it's still out there. Szoboticsanec says it's difficult to control because digital bullying often goes unsupervised. Late night Facebook activity is a common culprit that Szoboticsanec believes could and should be addressed by parents.
And it's not just violent threats and name-calling; it's blackmail too.
"Young girls are sending pictures of their bodies to boys, who then have control of that photo and can send it out to their friends," Szoboticsanec says.
Just last month, InfoTel News covered a story about a young woman whose ex-boyfriend had used nude photos to bribe her to have sex with him. The woman was 16 at the time of the incident, and ended up taking her ex to court.
"It's all too common," Szoboticsanec says.
She says women need to realize the consequences of sending suggestive photos. "You choose to send that picture out, and when you do, you lose your rights," she says. "That picture can resurface down the road when you're applying for law school. It doesn't go away."
Szoboticsanec often reminds male students that having a suggestive photo of a girl under 18 on their phones or computers constitutes possession and possibly distribution of child pornography. Sometimes, giving students perspective on their actions is enough to put an end to them.
"I dealt with a kid who had these photos of a girl on his phone," Szoboticsanec says. "He came in with his dad, and I asked him, how would you like it if your dad was charged with child pornography?"
The phone was in the father's name. "A light bulb went on for him," Szoboticsanec says, noting that education is often the best prevention.
Simply making contact can do wonders. "We like to address the root of the problem," Szoboticsanec says. "The bullier is often being bullied, perhaps coming from an aggressive home environment. Sometimes, it's a blessing in disguise."
In the vicious circle there are just as many victims as offenders. Having a support system in place means issues can be resolved through education and prevention. The school liaison provides this service, and when the city announced restrictions on the RCMP budget for 2013, concerns arose about the future of Szoboticsanec's position.
"I know the work I do is incredibly important," Szoboticsanec says. "But you can't measure prevention, and it's often the first job to go when there are cutbacks."
"I've seen kids go through the hardest times of their life," Szoboticsanec says. "And they come back to me for help. That would be impossible for me if I was back on radio."
When doing class presentations, Szoboticsanec likes to ask students to raise their hands if they've ever been bullied. "About 95% raise their hands, including me," Szoboticsanec says. Fewer students admit to being bulliers—about 70 per cent.
That astounding number is why Szoboticsanec's role is so important. With honesty and compassion, she helps to set a positive example for youth.
"Without prevention, you never know what might happen," Szoboticsanec says.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (250)309-5230