Editor's note: This is the 10th of a series of stories that run periodically concerning the topic of bullying in our communities.
MARSHALL - In response to repeated questions and concerns from parents considering purchasing cell phones for their adolescent children, one local company went right to a source to get some answers.
Betsy Atwood, director of prevention services with Carroll Institution in Sioux Falls, S.D., said that sponsor Wireless World, a local Verizon Wireless retailer, reached out to try and make a difference.
"The local Verizon store contacted us about doing something," Atwood said. "I think they heard about the bullying or substance abuse prevention presentations we've done at other schools. They said that parents talk about cyberbullying concerns when they come in to buy a phone."
As a result, Marshall Middle School students had the opportunity to engage in interactive cyberbullying prevention presentations on Monday afternoon.
MMS fifth- and sixth-graders learned about the "stop, save, block and tell" method for dealing with cyberbullying. Seventh- and eighth-graders received a more in-dept presentation on digital reputation, addressing cyberbullying, sexting and other risky online behaviors.
As an additional response to the outcry for information, Wireless World sponsored a dynamic presentation geared for parents Monday night.
"This is the first Minnesota school we've been to," Atwood said. "We've been going up the Eastern side of South Dakota for the last two years. We also spend lots of time in the Sioux Falls area."
The biggest message Atwood wanted to get across to both groups of students was the permanency of posting something. Technology can be positive, she said, especially when it comes to helping with homework, having fun with friends or being creative.
Atwood showed some video clips, including a talking dog, piano-playing cat and two business professionals stuck on an escalator, and got plenty of chuckles in response. Then, Atwood asked the youngest group what they thought cyberbullying was.
"It's when you use a phone or computer to hurt someone," fifth-grader Bryce Paulsen said.
A recent study showed that two out of five teenagers report being cyberbullying. She pointed out that while there were a lot of ways to cyberbully someone, there was something they all had in common.
During both student assemblies, individuals took a quiz, which helped determine whether some of their online activities could be construed as cyberbullying. The students also learned the consequences of cyberbullying are vast and can have a long-lasting impact.
"You'll see more students being depressed or being nervous about getting the next text message coming in," Atwood said. "Kids also don't know who to trust, or they could be angry and thinking about revenge, which can spread it even further."
Those negative feelings can spill over to the rest of their life, Atwood said, potentially leading to other conflicts, abuse of alcohol and drugs and thinking about ending their life.
"I've been a counselor for eight years and the kids that cyberbully never realize how much their words hurt," she said.
Atwood asked the fifth- and sixth-graders why they thought people bullied others. "Maybe they think it's fun or funny," one student said. Another said it was because they didn't think it would really cause trouble. Other thoughts were that bullies did it for the adrenaline rush or for revenge.
Sara VanLeeuwe, school resource officer for the Marshall district, spoke to the students about cyberbullying and the law, stating that offenses could be charged under crimes of disorderly conduct, terroristic threats, assault, harassment, stalking or crimes of another, which could be charged when a person cheers someone else on.
"It doesn't have to be in person," she said. "It's a crime. You may get talked to or have to go to court or be on probation."
For the victims, Atwood suggested talking to a principal, teacher or other trusted adult before something gets worse, which tied into the "stop, save, block and tell" concept.
"I thought the presentation was good," fifth-grader Christine Jones said.
Atwood also addressed one of the biggest cyberbullying issues: sexting.
"If the person is under the age of 18, it is called child pornography," she said. "It doesn't matter who took it. It is a felony."
Even if a person takes a risky photo of themselves, it's considered produced pornography as soon as the person clicks the camera. When it is sent to someone, it's called distributed, a second felony. A third charge of felony exists, called possession, when a person gets the photo.
"It's illegal," VanLeeuwe said. "And, it does happen in Marshall. " We had a student leave here because she sent her boyfriend pictures. He didn't sent them to anyone, but told someone. Then they told someone and so on. She was embarrassed enough to move to another school. It happens a lot, even in our community, because someone makes a bad choice."
Eighth-grader Shannyn Chesley thought the presentation was good.
"We had the same kind of speech last year, so this was sort of a review," Chesley said. "It's another reminder for us not to do it. (As middle-schoolers), we need it."
Chesley said she didn't think sexting was as big of an issue in the area as was making fun of people.
"It's not a lot about the pictures," she said. "It's more about saying someone is ugly. I think they do it because they want to feel good about themselves. But we know that makes you look mean and rude and it can hurt your digital reputation."