by Kathy Tang
A public Twitter account entitled “Bonita Vista BH” created by Bonita Vista High School (BVHS) students was published to promote the sale of tickets to an after-prom “Beach House” party that would provide attendees with illegal substances. The account linked several student organizations, including the Associated Student Body (ASB), BVHS Yearbook, Get to the Pointe (GTP), Co-Ed dance team and Vocal Music Department (VMD). After the Twitter account was brought to administrators’ attention, questions were raised regarding school internet safety policies and responsible social media use.
“My job and my responsibility is to make sure that our school is safe and that we’re promoting school events,” senior ASB president Alex Huerta said. “What they do outside of school is not an issue. That’s not our issue yet. But, if it becomes a problem on campus, then it’s an issue. That’s when we need to take it into our own hands, denounce it and stop it.”
The administration was alerted of the account’s existence after staff members of The Crusader became alarmed by a threatening tweet published by one of the party organizers, telling the staff “u [sic] should be afraid,” after the organizer learned an article would be published regarding the party’s use of social media. Staff members later reported being harassed by other students in classrooms and facing multiple disparaging remarks online.
“[The story] was pitched because someone had discovered an online post about Bonita Vista Beach House and they had created a Twitter. According to some online social media threads that people had seen [the account] was trying to set itself up as a school activity. The news value was really in letting the school, especially ASB, to distance itself from a non-school sanctioned party,” newspaper advisor Eric Helle said. “Our goal is to maybe urge a conversation, maybe to urge faculty and administration to be more active and vocal in this real ugly underbelly of our student culture, [and] to teach responsible and ethical use of social media.”
Following reports of online tweets in efforts to intimidate the staff, lead administrators Assistant Principals Christopher Alvarez and Ronne Pietila investigated the threats sent online outside of school. Alvarez explained that the party was initially brought to his attention after the ASB received a call from a parent inquiring about purchasing party tickets during Homecoming season in November of 2015.
When asked about his concerns regarding whether or not ASB or school clubs were implicated in illicit activity online, Alvarez replied that “the Bonita Vista High administration does not endorse or sponsor any activity outside of school that is not a school sanctioned event.”
Assistant Principals Alvarez, Pietila, Fernando Delgado and Jennifer Barker-Heinz have all stated that BVH administration does not condone illegal activity, and an inquiry into the event has led to a public Jupiter Grades message denouncing perceived school sponsorship on any parties or events after school sanctioned events. According to Pietila, investigations into student harassment are ongoing because of new information brought up April 22.
“This incident is still under investigation. An investigation can take several days depending on when we receive information, who is involved and when we can reach those involved. There are many things that go into an investigation and we want to do a thorough job,” Pietila said.
Online threats are being investigated in accordance to the 2015-2016 Bonita Vista High School Student/Parent Handbook guidelines. Current policies state that bullying harassment includes “any kind of comments, threats or actions that create an intimidating or hostile atmosphere.” Regardless if the incident originated off campus, allegations are thoroughly explored, and if they “prove to be factual,” disciplinary action is taken. Administrators rely on students to inform officials of situations that should be looked into.
“I think that administration ignores social media as its own platform and that it has its own evils. It’s much more powerful than what they think it is. They need to take into account that social media is much different from physical harassment and that it needs to be handled in different ways,” senior newspaper Editor-in-Chief Danica Cajigas said.
On April 25, an “Internet Safety Policy” was adopted by the Sweetwater Union High School District board to officially recognize the positive benefits of using the Internet as an educational tool, but included that the Superintendent must “develop and maintain procedures around the safe and responsible use of the internet and related technologies.” According to SUHSD Director of Information and Educational Technology David Damico, the next step would be for SUHSD Information Technology Security Coordinator Francisco Tamayo to write administrative regulations that reflect enforcement of policies with implementation of specific consequences.
“These policies mean that we are up-to-date and may now proceed to developing the administrative regulations (AR) that correspond with the new policies,” Damico said.
In addition, Damico mentioned an online course offered through Canvas on Digital Citizenship with eight units covering etiquette, online literacy, access to resources, security, health and wellness, online commerce, communication, rights and responsibilities, and law.
“What we are trying to do is get that as a course [students] can earn credit for, so you actually feel like there’s a reason to take the course. You would get credit for the course for your health requirement and it would give you a way to learn some of these things,” Damico said.
According to school psychologist Elisa Lujan, discomfort resulting from threats or otherwise at school can lead to an extended state of anxiety or constant fear, poor school performance, decline in attendance and impacts to interpersonal relationships. To improve the current system for handling harassment and threats, many BVHS officials feel there are additional steps to take.
“[Online harassment] can affect students in the exact same way [as harassment in person]. I don’t think it has to be direct. It can be on social media and still have the same impact. Even sometimes a greater impact because it has a greater potential of bringing more people into a situation,” Lujan said.
In order to maintain a safe environment at school, Lujan proposed implementing psychological counseling alongside a disciplinary approach. This would include follow up appointments and counseling sessions with not only the victims of online harassment or threats, but also the perpetrators.
“There’s more that we can do to integrate the school campus [with social and emotional goals] but it is a huge undertaking and it takes the upper level district officials to do it. I think they’re buying into it little by little. It just takes time and resources so it’ll probably happen slowly. Eventually we will have more social and emotional goals,” Lujan said.
The incident of harassment brought to light that policies must reflect the rate of constant change in the landscapes of social media and the internet to ensure the safety of all.
“Would you say that cyber bullying should be treated equally as physical bullying?” Damico said. “If it is meant to dehumanize another person, if it is meant to isolate them, if it is meant to make them feel different, to make them feel bad—in my view, it is egregious. In terms of the emotional impact, what it does to one’s self esteem—bullying is bullying.”