In cyberbullying, education, not arrest, seen as primary focus

Education, not arrest, is the key to combating cyberbullying, according to one of the Connecticut State Police’s top law enforcement school resource officers.

Sgt. Kate Cummings, an eight-year veteran of the state police who has also served at the Connecticut State Police Training Academy as the statewide D.A.R.E. coordinator, says arrests are inevitable if the crime is egregious, but “in the end, arrests do not undo the damage” for all the young people involved.

Monroe is the latest community in which young people — in that case, middle school age — were targets of online bullying. Police there said one juvenile was operating an Instagram page and posting nude and partially nude photos of fellow students and giving the students’ addresses.

“Unfortunately, this story resonates. We’ve seen the exact same situation several times,” Cummings, who speaks at parent forums on social media safety throughout the state, said.

Three juveniles were arrested in Monroe in mid-May after at least one classmate reported to police that they were the victim of what appeared to be cyberbullying from as far back as January.

Police said one juvenile was charged with third-degree possession of child pornography, risk of injury to a minor, third-degree harassment, and second-degree threatening. A second was charged with third-degree harassment and conspiracy to commit third-degree harassment, police said, and a third was charged with conspiracy to commit third-degree harassment.

“Nude or partially nude photos taken and disseminated is highly illegal, but beyond the criminal, it is the social and emotional fallout,” Cummings said, adding that she knows no specifics of the Monroe case.

“We, as school resource officers … police, want to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. The goal is to educate children and parents of the dangers to help keep this from happening,” she said. “Arrests happen, no question, some cases call for it, but that is never our goal.”

Cummings said in some cases, children do not realize the pictures or statements being posted will end up being disseminated across social media for all to view.

In Monroe, that did not appear to be the case, where police said the poster targeted specific people.

“The Monroe Detective Bureau investigated the case and was able to identify the Monroe juvenile who was operating the page and posting the content,” Police Lt. Kevin McKellick said at the time. “In addition, two other Monroe juveniles were assisting the account holder by providing content such as photos and commentary.

“The juvenile complainant said she, along with others, were being harassed by this anonymous account holder,” McKellick said. “She complained that the account holder was using the platform to shame, ridicule and bully local youths in addition to posting nude and semi-nude photos of them.”

It was unclear, he said, how the posters got the content.

Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, text and apps, or online in social media, forums or gaming where people can view, participate in or share content.

Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or confidential information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior, such as taking and sending nude photos.

According to stopbullying.gov, the most common places where cyberbullying occurs are through such platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok.

Most recent numbers from the CDC — referring to data from the High School Risk Behavior Survey done in 2019 — show there were a total of 1,999 reported instances of cyberbullying.

Statewide data are difficult to count. There were 582 counts of bullying incidents in 2019-20 — noting that districts switched to remote in March — according to data from EdSight - Connecticut State Education Data Portal. According to the state, the number of bullying incidents reported by districts as “online” were 58 in the 2018-19 school year and 38 during the 2019-20 school year.

Legislation, while in place, requires school districts to report bullying — but confirming incidents outside of school grounds remain difficult and defining whether cyberbullying has occurred may change from district to district.

Cummings said it is challenging to track crime stats around cyberbullying and sexting accurately because the goal remains not to arrest but to educate; the numbers of reported incidents nationally are much higher than any numbers at the state level.

She said departments throughout Connecticut have seen an uptick of cyberbullying among younger children, even elementary age, with so many devices in the hands of kids of all ages.

"This has become more prevalent among younger children as device usage becomes more embedded in their everyday lives,” Cummings said.

Cummings — who gave a Zoom presentation on social media safety to Shelton parents on May 20, the same day the Monroe arrests were announced to the press — said she calls on parents to become more digitally aware, and for students to understand the consequences and take personal responsibility for their social media decisions.

As a full-time State Police School Resource Officer, Cummings focuses on internet and social media awareness, teen driving safety, responsible decision making and healthy relationships during her talks. She has facilitated the free Internet Safety and Social Media Awareness community and student presentations more than 450 times in 100 towns across Connecticut.

Parents, according to Cummings, should monitor a teen’s social media sites, apps and browsing history if they have concerns that cyberbullying may be happening. They should follow or friend their teen on social media sites; stay up-to-date on the latest apps, social media platforms and digital slang used by children and teens; know their child’s user names and passwords for email and social media; and establish rules about appropriate digital behavior, content and apps.

“Parents should start an open dialogue about social media and their use of it … not lecturing, not judging, just talking,” Cummings said. “You want to highlight the positives of social media and how they can navigate the social media world safely. Parents also need to model good behavior on devices.”

Cummings said parents need to learn about the latest digital slang and various apps out there, such as TikTok, who many see as a harmless platform to dance and perform but could be a doorway for unsavory individuals to learn more about a child.

She also recommended asking a child who their favorite social media influencer is and follow them.

“Check them out for yourself. These individuals will be highly influential in your child’s life,” she said.

For more information and safe social media sites, Cummings recommends such resources as https://www.stopbullying.gov/, https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/, https://www.bark.us/, and https://sos.fbi.gov/index.html

Reporter Cayla Bamberger contributed to this report.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com