DENVER – Ashley Berry is 14. Bullies were relentless toward her. She goes to schools all over Colorado to share her story. It is a story about pain, depression, and wanting to give up. It is also a story about overcoming and making a difference for other kids.
“I tell kids not to let the bully define them,” Ashley said. “Let them inspire you to go out and make a difference.”
Ashley says bullies are everywhere.
“The problem is you don’t know who they are or why they don’t like you,” she said.
She is talking about online sites that more and more young people are hiding behind to spread mean messages that police say go beyond teasing and taunting. It is harassment, and it can be criminal.
Susan Payne worked in law enforcement for 25 years. She is also the founding Executive Director of Safe 2 Tell. It is a website and hotline where Colorado students can anonymously report to police what they are seeing and hearing from other kids.
“I’ve seen some unspeakable things,” Payne said.
What concerns her as much now is what she sees young people in Colorado face in schools and online.
“Last month we received more calls than in the entire history of the program,” Payne said.
The number one category of calls in September: Suicidal young people. Number two: Bullying
“All of these things are integrated,” Payne said.
She says she is inspired that students are embracing the message to reach out to Safe 2 Tell so they can help others. It also sheds a light on how big the underlying issue is.
A growing concern for those who work toward safe schools is a social networking site called Ask.fm, an app that can also be downloaded on a phone or tablet.
It is a question answer site that lets users send messages to people without giving a name. That anonymity seems to encourage vulgar and violent content. Many of the conversations 9NEWS found online we could not publish. They are too vile and too violent.
“The transactions are so horrific and so detailed telling someone to cut themselves,” Payne said. “Many tell young people to kill themselves and call them terrible names.”
The site revealed evidence in a recent case in Florida leading to the arrest of 12 and 14 year old girls.
One of the posts read, “Drink bleach and die. Nobody likes you.” The Sheriff says it went on for months on end. The middle school girl who was the target took her own life. She was 12.
“Behind that Florida case, there is probably 100 cases like it,” Payne explained. “I wouldn’t even propose to say we don’t have a case like it in Colorado.”
Jefferson County DA Pete Weir is warning parents about the risk of Ask.fm. Jeffco’s internet investigators say it poses “a significant risk to children.” Weir points out that it has been linked to a number of young people taking their lives.
In a release, the district attorney’s office wrote, “Ask.fm is popular because it’s new on the technology scene and also because it offers an anonymous channel for teens to communicate with friends or strangers without their parents’ knowledge. That very anonymity is dangerous. It allows cyber bullies and sexual predators to pick their victims behind a veil of secrecy.”
In less than five minutes, 9NEWS found a number of posts that were less than 24 hours old posted on an 8th grader’s page in Arvada. It named a classmate and said she would be better off killing herself.
“It is really scary to go through,” Ashley said.
She said when it is anonymous it is even worse.
“Just knowing someone is out there, wanting to hurt you or wanting you to hurt yourself,” she remarked.
Ashley says it is prevalent. Her mom, Anna says the kids can’t get away from it.
“It’s always there, after school and on the weekends,” Anna said. “It’s on their phones, and it’s on their computers.”
Anna says parents have to step in and help empower their children.
“We can’t put our heads in the sand and think my child is too young to talk about this. If they have an iPod touch or an electronic device, it’s time to have that conversation. If they have online access it is time to have that conversation,” Payne said.
She says the best thing kids can do is to report anything they see that is a concern. They can email, text or call in information. All of the contact information is on the Safe 2 Tell website.
Possible side effects of student-on-student harassment and bullying:
• Lowered academic achievement and aspirations
• Increased anxiety
• Loss of self-esteem and confidence
• Depression and post-traumatic stress
• General deterioration in physical health
• Self-harm and suicidal thinking
• Felling of alienation in the school environment
• Absenteeism from school
(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)