In the cable teen drama “Pretty Little Liars” an anonymous cyberbully known as “A” terrorizes a group of pretty, popular girls in a small, charming Pennsylvania town. Threatening to reveal secrets, destroy relationships, and eventually physically harm the girls, “A” leads the protagonists on a series of perilous adventures that is now in its seventh season.
In Alamo Heights, similarly charming and tight-knit, a far less glamorous version of the Pretty Little Liars plot is playing out in the lives of Hannah Martinez, 13, and eight of her Alamo Heights Junior School classmates who are being manipulated and harassed by an anonymous bully hiding behind an Instagram account.
The similarity may not be coincidental, AHJS counselor Lisa Lucas said. Today’s youth are growing up in a culture where the snark, snubbing, and harassment of adolescence has been romanticized by shows like “Pretty Little Liars,” “Gossip Girl,” and reality television. In their developing brains, the line between fantasy and reality can be hazy.
Cyberbullying, however, is far from fictional in the Alamo Heights community, which more than one year ago lost 16-year-old David Molak when pernicious cyberbullying drove him to commit suicide. In the wake of Molak’s death the community launched a campaign to stop cyberbullying and pass “David’s Law,” and anti-cyberbullying bill filed by José Menéndez in the Texas Senate.
The bill would require schools to include cyberbullying policy among other bullying policy, and extend the jurisdiction of investigations to off-campus behavior. Those investigations will have more tools to unmask anonymous bullies. It also allows for more strict punishment of the bullies, including making the behavior a misdemeanor. Finally, the bill includes resources for counseling offered to both the victim and the bully.
Current anti-cyberbullying policy varies somewhat between districts. In the wake of Molak’s suicide, AHISD commissioned a task force on the issue. As a result, cell phones are no longer allowed on campus in elementary schools and AHJS. New policies raised reporting expectations and included “the five forms of mistreatment” into the districts 24-Hour Leadership Code, which means that students can face consequences for what they do off campus.
The five forms of mistreatment are “exclusion, put-downs, bullying, unwanted physical contact, and acts against everyone.”
Jeanette Robinson, Martinez’s mother, wants to do more than just stop the bullying. She wants to flip the bullying into an empowering life lesson for her daughter.
All of this is easier said than done. The issue of bullying is notoriously difficult to address from outside. The insular, coded world of teenagers is governed by different rules than the adult world.
Kids don’t stop bullying just because they are told to. With the anonymity afforded by social media, accountability is difficult. Parents should never think that they’ve fully understood or addressed the situation, Martinez said.
“The kids aren’t going to tell the complete truth. We’re not going to tell you everything,” Martinez said.
Often cases of cyberbullying come to light long after the fact. Students want to handle things their own way, and some feel shamed by what is happening to them. In tragic cases like Molak’s, students don’t even realize the bullying is out of their control until it’s too late. Adults are left with a trail of hateful, violent, digital speech, and they wonder how the victim could have believed such flagrant falsehoods about himself or herself.
In Martinez’s case, the facts came to light early in the process, offering insight into how bullies establish control of their victims, and what can be done to prevent a tragic ending.
It all started about a month ago, Martinez said, when she got an Instagram message from an account she didn’t recognize. The messages were innocuous at first. “Hello” along with personal details he or she knew about Martinez. Some details were from her former school in Boerne. She soon realized that several of her friends were getting similar messages.
Like Molak, Martinez is not the stereotypical victim of bullying. Attractive, articulate, and confident, she describes she and her friends as well-liked, but not the most high-profile “group.”
Nonetheless, she imagines her cyberbully as a girl “with a perfect jawline and plump lips” or a boy with “big muscles.” She pictures someone who intimidates her socially.
In reality, her imagination could be wrong. Mistreatment can come from almost any direction in middle school. Jealousy, petty rivalries, and resentment spiral out of control quickly when played out online.
The details of the harassment are difficult to explain, due to the relatively specialized world of social media. Martinez summarizes it as, “anything a normal middle schooler would do but on a creepier level.”
For instance, one of her friends lost her keys, only to find them dispersed into various lockers. The bully claimed credit for the prank. The bully would send messages that proved Martinez and her friends were being watched throughout the day.
When Martinez and her friends asked the bully why they were being targeted, the bully said that the friends had betrayed him/her and needed to pay for something, but didn’t offer any specifics.
Martinez can’t remember having conflict with any of her peers, or doing anything that would count as betrayal. She has been in Alamo Heights less than a year, so it’s not hard to keep track.
Lisa Lucas, a counselor at AHJS, deals with this every day. Students often don’t realize how badly they hurt others, especially if it is unintentional. The adolescent pre-frontal cortex and waves of hormones lead them to make impulsive decisions, speak quickly, and fail to consider the potential effects. The same hormones make them overly sensitive to offense, especially being left out. Lucas says that in Alamo Heights exclusion is a powerful tool.
The bully tried to isolate Martinez, using secrets and lies to separate her from her friends. The friends stuck together.
“I got scared at first, but my friends helped me calm down,” Martinez said.
The keepers of the bully Instagram account framed the harassment as a game, and often called Martinez and her friends by terms of endearment, like “My Love.” When one friend contacted Instagram to get the account shut down, another account reappeared under the handle @the.game.is.still.on. Martinez and her friends got that account shut down as well.
Martinez fought back in messages trying to shake the bully off, but that only seemed to invigorate him/her.
Often the early days of the harassment hold clues as to why students stay silent. The bully used secrets about Martinez and her friends to keep them from telling their parents or school authorities.
“Everyone was afraid of getting in trouble for the little things they had done,” Martinez said.
This fear, Robinson said, is evidence that teens cannot yet differentiate between minor and major issues. The kids feared that counselors would refuse to help them because they had gotten caught drinking, or admitted to having a crush on a friend’s boyfriend.
Lucas rarely sees a situation of mistreatment where the victim has nothing to hide. Whether their initial response to the bully was less than ideal, or whether they have other secrets, most students don’t realize when what is happening to them becomes more serious than whatever they are trying to hide.
“No one wants you here”
On Feb. 12, the texts began to get violent. The bully began to suggest that Martinez kill herself.
“Thinking about picking up the razor? Or the pills this time? You should just end it all now.”
Her friends then received messages from the bully saying that Martinez was going to hurt herself. Spooked, one friend told her mom, who reported the harassment to the school counselor.
That’s when Robinson got the call to inform her that her daughter may be contemplating suicide. She confronted Martinez and learned the story. While Martinez’s first reaction had been annoyance with the harassment, she admits that when she was alone with the messages, they gained power.
“I wasn’t going to (harm myself), but I’m not going to say I didn’t think about it,” Martinez said. “It was hard not to get sucked in. There’s not much you can do to keep yourself from believing it when they are telling it to you every day.”
Part of the difficulty of cyberbullying, as opposed to face-to-face bullying, is the ability of the bully to constantly hide in the victims presence. Behind the screen, bullies can become like every other internet troll, saying things that a socially well-adjusted person would never say. Though they are safely hidden, they have instant access to the victim.
Fortunately for Martinez, she was not alone for long. Robinson is thankful for the “village” that brought the incident to light.
“As a single parent, I can’t be all places at all times,” Robinson said.
Social media has multiplied the number of places a parent needs to be. Martinez shares information on eight social media platforms. She uses the privacy tools the sites provide, but she and her friends share passwords, one of the biggest mistakes in cybersecurity, according to experts. Martinez admits that information on her would be easy to obtain.
“They only have this ultra-privacy with adults. They want their friends to know everything,” Lucas said. “There’s a perception that in order to be a good friend you have to share everything.”
One mistake adults make when dealing with situations like this is to underestimate the value of teenage friendships. Trying to show a teenager that their friends are a liability can backfire.
“Our friends are the one thing we have that we can depend on,” Martinez said, echoing a common sentiment among teens.
Toxic friendships, “frienemies,” and other unbalanced situations are common in this economy. Teens may not like it, but few have the maturity to defy the culture.
“Everything they do is based on people liking them,” Lucas said.
Martinez said that she had been reluctant to tell her mother, because she knew her mom would “overreact.” She doesn’t want lawyers involved. She doesn’t even want to get the bully in trouble, she just wants the harassment to stop. In middle school “making a big deal about it” is simply uncool, and threatens the friend-based system. It is usually the adults who want to see the bully “crucified,” Lucas said.
Robinson looked her daughter square in the face and told her she’s not getting her way on that issue. In Robinson’s eyes, the bully had crossed the line when they started suggesting suicide. While Martinez continued to see the whole situation as typical middle school “drama,” Robinson helped her see that adults have the obligation to intervene when things get out of hand.
Of course, it would be better if things never got that far. AHISD hopes that cultivating empathy among the students, along with other measures put in place to increase accountability and limit the use of cell phones during school, will cut down on the number of cyberbullying cases across the district.