by KIM HILSENBECK
A recent incident on Facebook led one 13-year-old boy’s father, Josh Sanchez of Buda, to question whether parents monitor the activities of their children online as closely as he does.
It also made him wonder if racism is alive and well at Hays CISD schools.
Josh said his son, a student at Barton Middle School, recently posted his picture on Facebook asking for votes for student council treasurer. With more than 600 “friends,” he thought it would be a good way to spread the word.
Sanchez said family members and friends wrote positive messages of support in response. Yet within hours, Sanchez said his son was the recipient of hate speech and racism on his Facebook site. Most people know this today as cyberbullying, which has made national headlines in schools across the country.
“It said Nicholas would never win the election because he is an ‘n-word,’” Sanchez said.
Sanchez saved the Facebook posts before they were deleted.
The posts show what appears to be a 13-year-old girl, who also attends Barton Middle School and is “friends” with Sanchez’s son, who wrote, “Ni—, you would never make it.”
Sanchez is Hispanic and of Mexican descent, though born and raised in the United States. His wife, Tamiko, is black.
Sanchez first responded on his son’s Facebook page, politely asking the poster to refrain.
But the comments kept going.
He went to the school to speak with Principal Teri Eubank; he was told the school couldn’t do anything about the incident because it didn’t happen on school property.
A review of the Hays CISD policy on social media bullying shows the district does not tolerate engaging in any form of technological misconduct (including cyberbullying) using school equipment, on school grounds or on a school vehicle.
In a case like the Sanchez’s, the school’s policy states that bullying on social media that happens outside of school is subject to discipline when “such conduct causes a material or substantial disruption at school as determined by the school officials.”
As an example, Hays CISD spokesperson Tim Savoy said the district had an incident where something happened on Facebook and it carried over to school; two boys were going to fight. They made the plans on Facebook.
That gave school officials the green light to implement an appropriate punishment for the students involved.
“We have to be sure that if we assign punishment we can justify it,” Savoy said.
Eubank told Sanchez that his son’s situation did not fall under those provisions.
“They said ‘there’s nothing we can do, it’s on social media’. But as soon as I walked in the building, I saw a huge poster that said, ‘No Place for Hate’,” Sanchez said – referring to a designation awarded to the district by the Anti-Defamation League for the past three years.
Sanchez was upset that the school wouldn’t get involved. Then he talked with the Barton Middle School Campus Resource Officer, a Hays County Sheriff’s Office deputy. That officer referred him to the Buda Police, also saying there was nothing that could be done since the incident didn’t take place on school property.
A conversation with a Buda Police Department officer also left Sanchez unfulfilled.
“They told me that what she wrote was protected under the First Amendment,” he said.
Without any imminent threat of harm or malice, the police could not do anything, Sanchez said.
So he hired a private investigator to locate the girl’s family. He learned that she lives in northeast Hays County with her mother, Karen White, a single mom who works two jobs, and a man who appears to be the girl’s uncle.
White said she initially thought the comments may have been written by her daughter, who has a different last name than she does.
A New Twist
But there may be more at play in this case than meets they eye.
On further investigation, White said she found evidence that shows her daughter’s Facebook account was hacked by a 12-year-old boy known to White and her daughter. He lives in Vermont, where White used to live. Her daughter met the boy while vacationing in the area.
White said the boy and her daughter were on friendly terms, but that changed. She believes he is hacking into her Facebook account out of spite.
“We have had problems with her account recently,” White said in a phone interview. “So we blocked Facebook from home three weeks ago. And my daughter doesn’t have a cell phone.”
The posts, which have since been deleted by Facebook, took place during hours when both students were in school. It was Sanchez who first noticed the hate speech on his son’s account.
If the posts were made by someone else tampering with her account, White said she may press charges for identify theft and harassment, though she said she would need to speak with the police to determine what charges to file.
Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett, speaking hypothetically about a situation of this nature, said he would advise the mother to contact her local police.
“If it were our department,” Barnett said, “we would take a report then contact the law enforcement authorities in that area of the country for assistance in an investigation.”
He could not say exactly what charges might be filed; that would be determined once he had all of the information and documentation.
Barnett urged parents to monitor their children’s online behavior, Sanchez agrees.
But how easy is it to track everything your child does online?
Internet usage among teens is higher than for any other age group. Data from a 2011 Pew Research Center study shows that 95 percent of American teens age 12-17 use the Internet, up from 87 percent in 2004.
That same study indicates that 80 percent of the teens online also use a social network site such as Facebook, up from 55 percent in 2006. Comparatively, 64 percent of all adults who are online use Facebook.
Among teens, Facebook dominates social media usage, according to the study.
Experts say teenagers may not realize the consequences of their online behavior and how it could affect them in the long run.
Charlotte Winklemann, head counselor at Hays CISD, said school counselors can help a student who is targeted by cyberbullying, even if, as in Sanchez’s situation, they can’t get involved to punish the offender. She said parents should encourage their children to report such incidents.
“I hope students feel they can talk to school counselors. That is our job, to help these kids,” Winklemann said. “We can have a conversation with a student who is being bullied, involve the parents, and talk to the family about how to deal with situation.”
Winklemann said Hays CISD counselors also help students learn how to avoid bullies.
“Bullies shop around for students to pick on,” Winklemann said. “We help students show confidence so the bully will keep shopping. We also teach students how not to be bystanders. The more others rally around the target, the less likely the bully is to keep going.”
Winklemann highly recommends parents know what their children are doing online; this includes keeping computers in a main area of the home and not in a child’s room.
Counselor Charlotte Winkelmann offers advice for intervention strategies to help families with cyberbullying:
• Don’t reply to cyberbullying, and save the evidence.
• Block offending email addresses and cell phone numbers, or change your child’s phone number and email address.
• Try to identify the perpetrator and report him or her.
• Report incidents and file complaints with communication services providers and websites where the cyberbullying is occurring.
• Report any potential criminal behavior to law enforcement.
• Get legal advice.
• Notify your child’s school of the problem if your child attends the same school as the bully.