Cyberbullying has increased in Guam public schools over the past two years, according to Superintendent Jon Fernandez.
He said based on disciplinary reports that track infractions, administrators have been dealing with more cases than in the past.
“It isn’t just the pandemic, it basically reflects the overall move toward technology for many of our students,” Fernandez said. “I think that’s the biggest challenge to understand.”
The Guam Department of Education has an anti-bullying policy, but schools have problems addressing cyberbullying. One of the biggest issues: Teachers and administrators don’t understand how social media platforms work, Fernandez said.
“I think the challenge is that it’s not always easy to identify cyberbullying,” said Fernandez. “I’ve been involved in cases where parents and students have disputes in schools, … and unless you are very adept and familiar with technology, as a third party trying to investigate a complaint about cyberbullying, it’s sometimes very difficult to put the pieces together.”
Students agree that cyberbullying has evolved.
“Since everyone has moved their whole social life online due to the pandemic, bullying has followed them there. It is difficult to know how much bullying is going on since we have a huge problem with underreporting,” said Emmy Bawit, John F. Kennedy High’s representative in the Islandwide Body of Governing Students. “(It) can be seen most prominently on Instagram, where multiple ‘tea accounts’ have been created.”
“Tea accounts,” called that because “tea” is slang for gossip, are set up anonymously and used by students to spread rumors and gossip.
Bawit said more students are seeing these accounts as something that is normal and fewer recognize it’s a form of bullying.
Additionally, with students being more vocal online, Bawit said students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are having difficulty finding safe spaces online. One example she noted was a trend that emerged early last year.
“It’s called the ‘super straight’ trend. It’s specifically to mock members of the LGBTQ+ community and has seen widespread adaptation in social media,” Bawit said.
Bawit and fellow Islandwide Body of Governing Students representative John Paul Pineda of George Washington High, are in the process of reviewing the board policy on harassment.
They are discussing the merits of an amendment to the policy to include specific protections for LGBTQ+ students.
“We are excited to be working on this project and hopefully bring about positive change to the island community,” Bawit said.
Fernandez said more training is needed to help teachers and administrators determine when cyberbullying is taking place.
In addition to addressing bullying, the department’s policy prohibits cyberbullying, sexting and sexual harassment in the classroom, on buses and bus stops, and at school-sponsored activities.
National research shows cyberbullying is most often a problem with students between the ages of 12 and 15. It tends to peak around the ages of 14 and 15 before decreasing, according to a report from the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Deputy Superintendent Tom Babauta said the department initiated bullying prevention measures about 15 years ago, focusing on positive support.
“We’re looking into changing the culture and starting at a very young age — catching kids doing something good and changing the structure of the school system — that would really promote and reinforce positive behavior,” Babauta said. “We’ve implemented and instituted this and, in line with that, we also do character education.”
Fernandez said parents should also take an active role in monitoring their children’s online activities.
As a parent himself, Fernandez said when the schools shut down, it was his responsibility to not only monitor how much screen time his children had, but also to be aware of what was happening in their online lives.
“I think the role parents have to play in the last couple of years has especially been important, because kids haven’t been in school,” he said. “There are just some things we may not know coming to manifest themselves now that the kids are back on a regular basis.”