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Cyberbullying, sexting pose new challenges for schools

It began several years ago with the rumor mill: parents swapping stories of cyberbullying, fake social media accounts, a friend of a friend whose child had been a target. As a mother and community organizer, Christine Fortune Guthery felt powerless.

“In an area where we want to protect our children, we felt at a loss,” the Natick resident recalled. “We felt like the technology was in the lead, the kids were second, and we were third.”

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In 2010, the same year Massachusetts passed a new antibullying law, Guthery founded a local parents group to tackle the problem. But recent incidents of cyberbullying and “sexting” involving Greater Boston students show how stubborn the problem is.

In Natick, officials sent a letter to families last month warning of the “new and potentially dangerous trend” of cyberbullying after incidents on social media last spring. In Beverly, about 20 middle and high school students were recently disciplined for spreading an explicit video. In Wrentham, officials reported this month that students at King Philip Regional High School had been circulating an inappropriate picture of a girl.

Meanwhile, the Waltham-based Education Development Center just launched a new antibullying website with a special focus on cyberbullying. And in Wayland last week, the Walden Forum held a seminar on the dangers of sexual cyberbullying as it relates to teen dating violence.

“The hardest part is having people that are willing to listen,” said Beverly police Officer Edward Hathon, the department’s school resource officer. “Everybody’s busy, parents included. Maybe they don’t think it’s a huge issue. Hopefully this creates a teaching moment.”

Cyberbullying is on the rise, according to a youth risk-behavior survey conducted last year by the MetroWest Health Foundation. At 26 area high schools, 21.5 percent of the students who responded said they had been victims of cyberbullying, compared with 17 percent across the state and 16 percent in the nation.

‘What was intended as a private communication ends in total humiliation.’

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Sexting has emerged as a problem as well. A survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com found that 20 percent of teens reported having electronically sent or posted nude or seminude images of themselves.

“Most often, these acts take place outside of school, but they carry over into school,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “This is where the kids come into contact with each other. This is where the cyberbullying meets the day-to-day confrontation, or relationship, that these youngsters have.”

While all schools have policies aimed at limiting bullying, Scott said, there is no clearly defined best practice for dealing with sexting. Parents and schools should be talking to children about both issues, he said.

The incident in Beverly that led to the students being disciplined involved sexting. In March, according to Hathon, a girl sent an inappropriate video of herself to a boy, who kept it to himself for around six months. But a few weeks ago, the video began to spread, making its way through cellphones and at least one school-owned computer.

“I can guarantee it, this happens all over,” said Hathon. “Beverly’s in the news right now. No one’s immune to this.”

The middle and high school students involved in the incident, including the girl who made the video, could have faced charges of possessing or disseminating obscene materials involving a minor, Hathon said, but police and school officials worked to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Instead, said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for the Essex district attorney’s office, the teens are being considered for the county’s Juvenile Diversion Program, which allows first-time, nonviolent offenders to avoid prosecution if they meet certain conditions, such as counseling or community service.

Sexting has also surfaced in Wrentham, after King Philip Regional High School students on a school bus shared an inappropriate picture sent by a girl to a boy, who sent it out to his friends, according to Superintendent Elizabeth Zielinski. Police have said they will hold seminars on sexting at the high school, and are considering doing the same at the middle school.

“This is the first time that the district has had to deal with the situation at this level,” Zielinski said. “I can’t say it’s the first time it’s ever happened, because who knows what kids are doing on their phones.”

Wrentham police did not respond to requests for comment, but posted a warning on the department Facebook page about the dangers of sexting.

“What was intended as a private communication ends in total humiliation,” the post warns, and then, in capital letters, it advises parents to open the lines of communication: “Parents need to talk and talk and talk about this.”

In Natick, meanwhile, school officials are taking an active approach to cyberbullying after several incidents in the last school year in which students created fake social media accounts to impersonate others.

In a letter sent to school families by Superintendent Peter Sanchioni and the town’s police chief, parents were urged to monitor their children’s online activity and report any incidents of hacking, impersonation, or harassment.

“When appropriate,” the letter reads, “the Natick Police will prosecute.”

Sanchioni said the letter was meant to galvanize parents to get involved. The district already has a strong antibullying program that early this year received an award from the Middlesex district attorney’s office, but students will sometimes slip up, he said.

“There is a lack of control as soon as our school bell rings,” he said.

Which is where Guthery comes in. The parent group she founded in 2010, originally called Natick Parents Against Bullying and Cyber-Bullying but now known as SPARK Kindness, seeks to prevent bullying, not just react to it after the fact. Members include parents, youth sports coaches, and clergy.

The organization offers a speaker series to educate the public — the current theme is resilience — and hosts a yearly event celebrating inclusion. SPARK works with the school district to support its Peer Leadership Program, which teaches students to stand up to bullies, and cofounded the Natick/Metrowest Anti-Bullying Coalition, which includes about 60 organizations.

Starting in February, Guthery said, the organization will hold a campaign called “Kindness Counts,” encouraging children to talk about what kindness means to them.

“The SPARK represents three things to me,” said Guthery. “It’s the light — kindness is bringing light into the darkness. It’s fire, it’s power — kindness is power. When you think of great social justice movements,’’ from Gandhi to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she said, “they have been built with kindness at their center.

“And then, it’s a catalyst.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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