SHERIDAN — In a pre-dawn breakfast meeting Friday, Rep. John Patton, R-Sheridan, met with representatives from a local council who wanted to address an issue of concern to their constituents — even though most of those constituents aren’t old enough to vote yet.
Six members of Sheridan High School Student Council sat down over eggs and coffee at Perkins before school Friday morning to discuss an issue that came to light in October when a Facebook site called “SHS Confessions” went awry with anonymous posters saying degrading and sometimes threatening things about their peers. The site was pulled off Facebook, but the incident brought the issue of cyberbullying front and center.
“There is a hidden culture of bullying,” Student Council President Tyler Julian said. “It’s not overt. It’s not ‘give me your lunch money’ anymore.”
In November, the Sheridan County School District 2 Board of Trustees voted to petition the Wyoming School Boards Association to pursue legislation regarding cyberbullying. The resolution the board submitted read, “Be it resolved: The Wyoming School Boards Association supports amending existing legislation to provide law enforcement the ability to intervene whenever any communication is transmitted, whether physical, electronic, or verbal occurs with the intent to coerce, demoralize, harass, or cause emotional distress to a person.”
Student councilors present at the meeting — who were the general consensus of fellow students and not SHS as a whole — said they were appreciative of efforts to address cyberbullying but also had concerns they hoped legislators would consider before drafting a law.
Their main concerns involved privacy rights and worries about how much authority school officials should hold over their lives outside of school.
Student Council Advisor Ward Cotton noted that statistically there is not much cyberbullying in Sheridan schools with 2 to 5 percent of the student population reporting involvement on either side of the practice.
Cotton said when he discussed cyberbullying with his classes after the “SHS Confessions” incident, students brought up the point that society as a whole has become more accepting of rudeness, which can be exacerbated in online forums.
“It’s a generational problem that we accept that rudeness, that we have become desensitized to it,” Senior Class President Aaron Campbell said.
Still, Campbell said, the line of what constitutes cyberbullying needs to be extremely clear in legislation so that students don’t lose more of the little privacy they do have.
Cotton reiterated that point.
“This generation never gets away from each other. When they leave for the weekend, they don’t actually leave. They have a cyber community. It’s like they’re in school continuously. They have no way to step back and let things cool down,” Cotton said.
In other words, squabbles, cliques and insecurities move almost seamlessly between school and social media, which can become problematic when there are anonymous forums on which to unleash.
“Hiding behind a screen name or ‘anonymous’ is just cowardice,” Julian said.
“But you can’t punish someone for being cowardly,” Campbell answered. “People don’t like always being watched. How do you monitor without always monitoring?”
Student Council Treasurer Ashley Sampson said class surveys about cyberbullying and the possibility of state laws being written to address it indicated that most students don’t want to be monitored by the school when they’re off school grounds.
Julian wondered if there were current laws about bullying that could be applied to Facebook rather than creating new rules that could further blur the lines of privacy.
The discussion then turned toward the need to foster a sense of safety and kindness on school grounds where victims of cyberbullying can come forward and seek help without fear of retribution.
“Bingo,” Patton said to that sentiment. “But how do you get students confident enough to come forward?”
“Show that bullies can be punished,” Freshman Class President Paden Koltiska said.
“Show the bullies the pain they are causing. Show that it is effective to come forward,” Campbell added.
But, the students agreed, it would be hard to write all that into a bill. Perhaps it could be done without legislation if teachers and student leaders lived with integrity and honor and worked to fight cliques, they suggested.
“It’s nebulous what the Legislature might do,” Patton said.
He then explained that 2014 is a budget session for the Legislature, which limits what bills can be brought to the floor for consideration.
Patton also said the Joint Education Committee did not have time to draft legislation regarding cyberbullying, so it is not likely it will be introduced or discussed in the 2014 session. However, he said he would try to get it into the education committee next year so that it could be addressed in the 2015 legislative session. That extra time may be a good thing, he said, because it will allow students to have input into a bill that could directly affect their lives.
“I’ll do anything you ask,” Patton assured the students, adding that he will strive to represent their concerns about privacy rights and make sure the bill isn’t rushed through without heed for student concerns.
“Those young people are very thoughtful. I was impressed with their thoughtfulness, and their commitment. Here they all were early in the morning, and they’re all bright — what a delight, what an opportunity,” Patton said.
“Their thoughtfulness stems back to their real concern about their position as leaders in their classes. The responsibility that they have was very genuine and very much felt. They are concerned about such things as bullying and the social life that they find themselves encapsulated in and how to handle it and how to best respond. I considered the meeting very positive and look forward to continuing communication and conversation with them.”