Sexploitation and cyber bullying

In the aftermath of incidents of cyber bullying at Penticton Secondary School this fall, a grassroots effort was created to deal with the problem.

On Wednesday night, school officials, members of the community and worried parents came together to brainstorm solutions and discuss ways to propel the effort known as the Cyber Bullying and Sexual Exploitation Action Committee forward.

"Bullying is nothing new," said Pen Hi vice principal Todd Manuel, in explanation of the importance of the effort. "What's different now is that once the information is out there in the digital world it goes viral."

The committee was formed after Manuel had a meeting with the school principal Alan Stel to share concerns about the severity of the cyber bullying at the high school. He did not provide details on what the extent of that bullying was.

Ironically, the very next day the Amanda Todd tragedy was in the news, making officials feel obligated to take a broader stance at the school.

To do so they came up with a team approach, bringing in administrators in the district and counselors, as well as outside partners such as the RCMP and other nonprofit organizations focused on children in the community.

A first meeting Oct. 24  was attended by about 34 people, out of that came the second, to which parents were invited.

Around 40 people including school officials, parents and other community representatives showed up Wednesday for the meeting in the school library.

Manuel told those gathered that three main themes have been brainstormed so far. They are model and teach empathy, engage students in the process and provide educational opportunities for parents.

He further discussed resources that are being put together and future workshops and presentations on the matter.

Attendees were invited to work together in small groups to answer four questions including what are the most significant issues facing youth and parents regarding the safe use of social media.

In response, participants suggested creating posters about thinking before you post, bringing more parents on board and getting more at risk kids involved.

At one table, Robert Regamble,  a former high school student in Penticton, described his experiences with bullying.

"I was a victim of cyber bullying, every type of bullying through middle school and high school," he said. "So I want to tell my story because it feels to me like a way of connecting with kids, letting them know they are not alone."

Erica McDowell, a teaching assistant and parent, who created a web site and Facebook page for the committee, said she is involved because she is concerned about the lack of control parents have over technology and how it is everywhere.

"As a parent we grew up with bullying but not this type of bullying," she said. "And it's scary because it is stuff children would never say face to face. Through not having a face on the Internet you are able to say things you wouldn't say in person."

Parent Sue Gunning said when it comes to her teens, her biggest fear is being unaware of what is happening, what is going on in the virtual world.

And as a teacher of at risk students, she worries about the misuse of the Internet.

"It's the fact that kids use it and really don't know the repercussions of something as simple as posting pictures from parties," she said.

Others in attendance share the fear and the hope that the grassroots effort continues to grow.

"Without an integrated network of communication, we are all working in silos," said Shannon Stewart, an aboriginal child and youth clinician with the Ooknakane Friendship Centre. "Here we are increasing our advocacy and capacity to create change."

The next meeting at the high school will be on Jan. 16. On Dec. 10, Merlyn Horton from the Safe Online Outreach Society  will speak to parents at the Shatford Centre.

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