'Sticks and stones'
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Janene Holter of the state Attorney General's Office, interacts with students Friday in the Tamaqua Area Auditorium. Holter warned the students against improper use of cyberspace and technology.
Bullying is no longer confined to playgrounds and school corridors. Today, bullying can be found online and in cell phone messages, and both can be just as deadly.
Recently, Janene M. Holter, senior supervisory agent in the education and outreach program of the Office of the Attorney General, told 1,000 Tamaqua Area School District students in grades 7-12 how they can protect themselves, their family and friends. It starts with avoiding misuse of today's technology, such as cameras and cellphones.
"Take photos of your family, friends and vacations," said Holter, "But if someone asks to take a photograph of you partially clothed or with no clothes, don't do it. Kids your age are getting arrested for forwarding those kinds of photos."
Holter said one such person had his life turned upside down.
"He's 18 and now in jail as a child predator, a sex offender, instead of going to college," she said.
The person in question never actually touched anyone but was prosecuted under Megan's Law, all because he forwarded inappropriate photos, a practice sometimes called 'sexting.'
Holter said the passing along of such photos of anyone under age 18 is a crime - a felony, and punishable under Commonwealth law.
The assembly, held in the Tamaqua Area Auditorium, included an examination into two recent case studies involving Pennsylvania students.
One youngster, Gabrielle, a seventh grader from West Chester, posted a threatening message online after being bullied by several classmates. Although she had started out as a victim of bullying, she was seen as a bully herself when she posted the threat in retaliation or out of frustration. She was subsequently arrested in front of her classmates and sent to a juvenile detention center.
Even more sobering is the case of student Jeff Johnston, who took his life after being harassed and bullied. Jeff had been derogatorily called "crypt keeper" because he enjoyed the Dungeons and Dragons game. Some classmates also taunted him with names such as "gay, fat, ugly, and stupid."
"They made it miserable," said his mother in a video called 'Sticks and Stones.'
Jeff hanged himself inside his bedroom closet. His body was discovered the following morning by his mother and brother. The bullies were never prosecuted for what they had done.
"There was no law against driving someone to death using a computer," said Holter.
Holter said there are three components to bullying.
"There is the victim, the bully, and the bystander," who sometimes doesn't get involved, which makes the matter worse.
She encouraged all who see bullying to report it to a teacher, a parent, a counselor, or the principal or vice principal.
She also encouraged the students to embrace diversity.
"You don't all have to be the same ... respect one another. I don't want anyone here making fun of anyone else for their likes and dislikes," she said.
She cautioned students to think twice before posting comments or photos on networks such as Facebook and MySpace.
Assistant Principal Steve Toth welcomed the students and urged the youngsters to heed the advice.
"It occurs very frequently and is not foreign to the Tamaqua Area School District," said Toth. "So take what she says to heart."
Holter is one of six presenters in the Commonwealth who address schools on issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to school safety and gun violence. The programs aim to empower students with knowledge.
A borough resident and Tamaqua Area High School grad, Holter pursued criminal justice at Albright University, setting the stage for a career in law enforcement and investigative services.
The program presented is the newest initiative of Attorney General Tom Corbett, who launched the effort in October.