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Schools need to do more to make good digital citizens out of their students. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Schools need to do more to make good digital citizens out of their students. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bridging a cyberbullying gap in the face of tragedy Add to ...

The Coquitlam School District, where Amanda Todd attended her last school, will be sending out letters to parents this week, pointing to Amanda’s tragic suicide as an opportunity for them to discuss the hazards of online behaviour and cyberbullying with their children.

The letter will also provide parents with a list of available resources to help with their discussions, district spokeswoman Cheryl Quinton said Monday.

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“What this tragedy has done is raise the dangers of social media,” Ms. Quinton said.

“It’s an opportunity to get the dialogue going, to increase awareness for kids about appropriate behaviour on the Internet.”

She said the move is supported by Amanda’s family.

Following a spate of Facebook bullying and extortion, arising from a brief webcam exposure in Grade 7, the 15-year old committed suicide last week. A heart-wrenching video detailing her anguish, which was posted on YouTube several weeks earlier, has evoked worldwide sympathy and mourning for the Port Coquitlam teen. Merlyn Horton, executive director of the Safe Online Outreach Society, which works with parents and schools to enhance online safety, endorsed the school district’s decision, calling on more boards to follow suit.

“I do not want to exploit the Amanda Todd tragedy and her family in any way, but at the same time, this is an opportunity for us all to look at this issue,” Ms. Horton said.

“It’s good to remind everybody of some basic Internet safety messages, and to encourage parents to have dialogue with their kids.”

While Amanda had taken advantage of school-support systems, her death has school officials and experts acknowledging the difficulty of the adult world trying to keep up with the fast pace of technological change, embraced so easily by young students.

David Vandergugten, director of instruction for the neighbouring Maple Ridge School District, where Amanda endured much of her bullying, likened Internet years to dog years, in that so much can happen in one human year. He said the district is having to update its social-media policies on an almost constant basis, noting that safeguards promoted for risk-free home computer use by children are now outmoded, thanks to the widespread use of smart phones “that can be used anywhere.”

Teacher and principal training has been stepped up, and the district has had success with an online exercise that scores students on how well they respond in simulated chatrooms and Facebook challenges, Mr. Vandergugten said. “We can support and educate students, but at the end of the day, they have to make personal choices, too.”

Ms. Horton said the gap between adult knowledge of online culture and youth proficiency in it is widening all the time.

“Adults have lots of life experience and little technical knowledge. Youth has lots of technical knowledge and no life experience,” she said. As a result, young people have a tough time assessing risk and imagining future consequences, she said. according to Ms. Horton. adding that government funding cuts have impeded her organization’s ability to get its message out.

Kids should be taught about online dangers in their early elementary years, before they are caught up in the whirl of social-media pressures, she said. “Schools are doing the best they can, but they need more resources.”

Julia Hengstler, an educational technologist at Vancouver Island University, also pointed to the need for schools to do more to make good digital citizens out of their students.

Left on their own, without codes of social-media conduct, kids can react as if left unchecked in a candy store or turn dangerous like the youngsters in Lord of the Flies , Prof. Hengstler said.

“[Amanda’s tragedy] is a clarion call to work at getting technology back as a tool, rather than letting it run wild,” she said, and schools are bes t placed to do that.

Back in Coquitlam, Ms. Quinton said administrators are also taking to steps to ensure that all teachers are on the same wave length, should they choose to discuss Amanda Todd’s death in the classroom.

“We need a systemic approach, using her story and video in the best way possible, supported by her family and professionals,” she said. “And we will be discussing that in the next few days.”

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