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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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November202007

Megan’s Tragedy

This week marks the fifth year that educator Bill Belsey has organized Bullying Awareness Week. And its timing couldn’t be more ironic, given the horrifying story that emerging of a Missouri teen who killed herself after being bullied on MySpace by a former friend - and her family.

Frankly, I thought I’d seen everything. Kids can be incredibly cruel to each other, and the Internet has made it possible for that cruelty to become more spontaneous, more viral, more permanent. There’s been no shortage of news stories in the last few years of young people who have been forced to become pariahs, even because of online campaigns to taunt and harass them by other students. Yet the story that came out this week about Megan Meier takes this type of cyberbullying to a whole new level of disgust.

Meier was a Missouri teenager struggling with self-esteem problems and depression who befriended someone named Josh Evans on MySpace. Josh claimed to be a local 16-year-old boy who was being homeschooled in the town of O’Fallon. He seemed cute and funny, and Meier was quickly charmed by his online messages. Soon, though, his missives went from charming to vicious. In his last message to her, he purportedly wrote, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a sh**ty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”

Twenty minutes later, Megan was dead, having hanged herself in her closet.

To call Megan’s story tragic is an understatement, but the story gets worse. In the weeks following Megan’s death, her family discovered the identity of “Josh Evans.” It turns out the account was created by a family who lived nearby. Megan had recently had a falling out with their daughter, so they decided to play a prank on Megan by creating the Josh Evans account.

When the news broke that adults were involved in this horrific case of cyberbullying, there was outrage among some bloggers who were upset that initial news coverage didn’t identify the names of the parents involved in the incident. It didn’t take long for them to identify the parents, then publish information about where they lived and worked. Their home has been targeted by vandals and threats, forcing police to beef up patrols in the neighborhood. The outrageous initial behavior of the family is causing others to commit their own acts of outrageous vengeance. The community is caught in a moral death spiral, a horror story where predators spawn counter-predators.

This nightmare couldn’t come at a more ironic time, as this week also happens to be Bullying Awareness Week, an annual campaign launched by Bill Belsey to address the root causes of bullying, both online and offline. Initially a Canadian event, it has spread to the US and other parts of the world, as more educators, concerned citizens and even students become involved in anti-bullying initiatives.

In describing his motivation behind the event, Bill writes:

Research has shown us that approximately 15% of a given population in a school or workplace are directly involved with bullying, that leaves 85% as potential bystanders or silent majority. This group is the primary focus and target audience for Bullying Awareness Week. The week also has youth as a primary focus, as they are the ones who can “Be the change”, and grow up thinking differently about bullying unlike many in previous generations who have attitudes about bullying as a “Right of passage” or even that “Being bullied is good for you, it toughens you up.”

For each day this week, Belsey has planned out activities that teachers, students and community members can organize locally. Today, for example, is Bullying is a Community Issue Day. Belsey is encouraging schools and other community institutions to invite local leaders to participate in local dialogues about ways to prevent bullying, as well as establishing youth advisory boards that work in conjunction with municipal officials.

Of course, there’s no event that will heal the wounds in Missouri, no activity that can bring back Megan. But events like Bullying Awareness Week can at least play an important role in addressing the underlying causes of bullying and confronting them head-on. If only we could do a better job keeping the dialog going when there isn’t breaking news. We’re definitely trying - the Stop Cyberbullying social networking site I set up earlier this year has many committed educators and parents involved. But it’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the cultural shift that’s needed regarding how we perceive bullying and what should be done about it. -andy

Filed under : Events, People, Safety

Responses

Thank you for sharing this story. I, too, had thought I had heard it all, but this story fills me with such sadness on the one hand, and such anger on the other. Just like the folks in that town.

I am horrified, but not surprised. Our culture celebrates and idolizes bullies. A perfect example of this is the popularity of American Idol.

I was also sad to hear about the lost of Meier and even sadder about the circumstances surrounding her death. I am a Computer Resource Navigator. I am responsible for teaching computer classes and monitoring computer usage by the students in the lab. My biggest worry is that one of my students will connect on the internet with someone who means them no good. After hearing about Meier I went to work with the thought that I was going to band My Space from all the computers. I thought about it long and hard and I wanted to know if there was anything my students could say that would convince me to change my mind. I had an open discussion with my students and gave them the opportunity to voice their opinions. All my students were sad about the young teen-ager’s death and they all gave some really good arguments. I think Meier’s death has made them more aware of the dangers of interacting with someone you don’t know on the internet. I have decided to keep My Space in my lab but, I will be monitoring my students more closely.

I was wondering what kind of legal action was taken but it turns out that the public’s reaction was the only punishment. “After discovering that ‘Josh Evans’ was a fake profile, state and federal prosecutors searched for a law under which to charge Drew [the mother], but were unable to find one that fit the circumstances of the case.”

The community in response then “passed a new law that makes cyberbullying a crime. It is now a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and 90 days in jail, to harass someone over the Internet.”

Too little, too late.

(Quotes taken from http://www.toptechnews.com/story.xhtml?story_id=56869)

Here is link to the article about the new law from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If you search the “Megan Meier” at stltoday.com you can read the entire story.

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/stcharles/story/A2D43DB6B8184B718625739B00130514?OpenDocument

I just can’t believe that we don’t already have laws covering this stuff. I am tired of the cyber world being treated differently than the actual one. This should be easy to prosecucte since it all occurred within the same state.

Thanks for posting this message. I am an elementary school counselor in a small town in New Mexico and I teach my 3-5 graders a curricululm called Steps to Respect to help keep awareness of this societal problem out of our school. Of course, it is an up-hill battle and I get very tired of repeating the message year after year, but seeing stories like this remind me just how valuable my lessons are to my students, my community and hopefully, their future.

We are in LA Unified middle school. Our teaching staff is introducing the community (parents, teachers and community members) to the 40 ASSESTS OF DEVELOPEMENT, devised by the Search Institute. There are many “assets” that address “bullying”. I suggest all parents look into this and learn how to implement the 40 Assests for you own childrens’ success, happiness, self-esteem, etc. Gool luck! www.search-institute.org

What do you do when the person being bullied and belittled is a ‘vulnerable’ adult. One who was bullied throughout childhood and has no idea how to ‘fight back’ ? This person is physically disabled, very ill and homebound. She is also extremely depressed, isolated and lonely.
She was constantly made fun of by other ADULTS on a message board and even belittled and ‘scolded’ by the webmaster for infractions that were committed by others. Yesterday the webmaster went too far. He ‘banned’ her from the message board and announced it in public, which humiliated her greatly. Now she is even more depressed and withdrawn.

WHO/WHERE can she get help ? The website is

OLAFire.com - check out how CedarLake was treated !

This story makes you realize that people are capable of almost anything, the bad and the good.

Speaking of the good, I want to express my thanks and admiration for Bill Belsey and his work as a parent, educator and anti-bullying leader. Mr. Belsey’s tireless efforts are well known across Canada. His Websites, http://www.bullying.org, http://www.cyberbullying.org and http://www.bullyingawarenessweek.org have been such helpful resources in raising awareness about the issues of bullying and cyberbullying.

Fairly recently he created http://www.bullyingcourse.com, which offers online courses and Webinars for parents, educators and others.

I recently took the E101 course for educators and is was excellent!

Perhaps if more parents, teachers and others took these courses, we may be able to prevent such tragedies as the one that took Megan’s life.

We may never completely stop bullying in our society, but prevention through education and awareness will go a long way towards changing attitudes and behaviours that make bullying such a scurge in our society.

Sincerely,

Tim Johnson

It is even sadder when ignorance or acceptance of the status quo of bullying is accepted and perpetuated my adults, including the so-called “professionals” in a school building. My son, who is large for his age was repeatedly harassed at recess by third and fourth graders when he was only in first grade. He was emotionally unready to deal with this. He has a social disability, which the school was aware of. Naively, I assumed they would take measures to deal with this. (Message to parents: Get 504s and HAVE ACCOMODATIONS FOR RECESS WRITTEN INTO YOUR IEPS!!!!)
Despite the harassment, which included being punched, pushed down and having a ball whipped at him, my son was told by the teacher monitoring the playground to not be a “tattle-tale” — to the extent that he was afraid to share with anyone when he was being hurt. He has extreme anger issues now that he is older. I fear that my son may become one of the kids that “snaps” and takes revenge. Personally, I am angry because the community that I entrusted him to has partially created this challenge in his life but will never take responsibility for it.

-Angry Mother in “Hicksville City,” Michigan

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