MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair residents were treated to an informative and powerful conversation on cyberbullying and were presented with ways to handle the devastating form of bullying.
The program entitled “Cyberbullying – The Great Fear” took place at The Union Congregational Church Thursday night and was put together by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area Education Fund to recognize May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The presentation featured interactive scenarios acted out by the New Jersey Mental Health Players and a panel of experts to address the topic.
First, Mental Health Players and Montclair High School seniors Lilli Herrick and Sofia Happonen played two high school students hanging out at Starbucks. Herrick played a new student in school and made some new friends, friends who happened to be friends with Happonen. After being jealous of Herrick getting close to her friends, Happonen sent around a “loser list” with Lilli’s name on it and started the hashtag “#13ReasonsWhyIHateLilli.” When Herrick questioned Happonen on these actions, Happonen got defensive and said her actions were justified.
Mental Health Players Director John Rogers stepped in and asked the audience if they had any advice for Herrick and Happonen on how to handle a situation like this.
“Still have a conversation with her. Don’t just get up and walk away,” School Resource Officer and Detective Kim Nelson-Edwards from the Montclair Police Department said. “Let her know that it’s not right, she shouldn’t have done it, she needs to take that down.”
Nelson added that in order to resolve this issue and have a productive conversation, Herrick needs to understand that she does not know what Happonen is going through; Happonen may be afraid too.
The second skit was one between two parents shopping at Kings grocery store. Patrick Little played the father of a student named Marcus, who he lets have free reign when it comes to exploring the Internet, and Maggie Barbetta played the mother of student Robert, who is more sheltered by his mom.
While discussing their sons, Barbetta told Little that he is giving Marcus too much freedom and that Marcus is using that freedom to cyberbully Robert. When Barbetta said she was going to bring up the issue to the school, Little suggested they resolve it between the two of them, even telling Barbetta that Marcus might just need a punch in the nose from Robert.
Several audience members said punching was not the answer and that Barbetta needs to gather as much information about the bullying as possible and make sure it was happening in school before bringing the school into it, but that getting the school involved was important.
Following the skits, the panel members took their seats at the table to begin the discussion. The panelists included Nelson-Edwards, Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti, Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor and Pediatrician Dr. Renee E. Baskerville, District Mental Health/Anti-Bullying Coordinator Andrew Evangelista and Susan Mack from The Partnership for Children of Essex.
Evangelista spoke first on the issue and said there is nothing more troubling than bullying in the modern day of age because of the ability to post things on the Internet.
Evangelista also spoke about what he thought about the highly controversial Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” saying he could see the good and the bad in it.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Evangelista said. “It showed a young lady without mental health issues herself; it was all external. There are so many things wrong with that but so many things right with it too.”
The show brought attention to the school’s way of handling the bullying, he said, and started a conversation among parents and their kids.
“Parents are the first line of defense,” Evangelista said. “You need to talk to your kids.”
Baskerville spoke next and echoed Evangelista’s comments about the importance of parents speaking to their children and believing them when they say they are being bullied. It is also important to look out for changes in children’s behavior and be aware if it seems like something may be going on.
“I think the most important thing is education, education, education. We need to talk more about it. We need to talk more about it as parents. We need to talk about it as a community,” Baskerville said. “Let’s keep our eyes and ears open and not second-guess [our children].”
Conforti’s comments followed Baskerville’s and he discussed the legal side of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, he said, is a fourth-degree crime but becomes a third-degree crime if the bully is 21 years old or over impersonating a minor and bullying a minor.
While the police department gets involved if threats of violence, extortion, bias or harassment, child pornography or other illegal matters are part of the cyberbullying, Conforti said the police try to leave the issue up to the school. The police do not want to put children in the juvenile system if they do not have to.
If it does get to a level in which the police need to be involved though, Conforti said the parents and victims must save any emails or texts and contact the administrator of the website they are being bullied on. Of course, parents must not encourage kids to bully back.
Consequences for bullying at a level that the police get involved in may include an apology, restitution, a fine and/or community service, and if it reaches a certain level, possible incarceration of one or two years, depending on the degree of the crime. It takes a lot to get to that level, though, Conforti said.
Although the police try not to get involved if the school can handle it, Conforti said the police department is dedicated to protecting kids.
“We are proactive when it comes to kids,” he said.
Nelson-Edwards had similar comments to Conforti, saying the police department lets the school handle the bullying situation unless there certain things – like children’s photos – involved. She also added that children must come forward if they are being bullied.
“We have to educate the young adults. We have to let them know you have power,” Nelson-Edwards said. “Don’t just sit there and take it. Pass it on to your parents. Say something to someone. You take a stand yourself.”
Mack was the last of the panelists to speak and discussed her organization’s approach to cyberbullying.
“We use the wraparound approach to address use with mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and/or developmental disabilities,” Mack said of The Partnership for Children of Essex. “We do a very holistic approach.”
The question and answer forum was the final part of the presentation.
One audience member asked Evangelista’s thoughts on how to handle middle school cyberbullying versus high school cyberbullying. The mental health expert said he does take different approaches when it comes to younger and older kids, but regardless of the age, he and his colleagues try to help kids understand to be respectful of one another.
Another question posed to Evangelista was the effects of parents taking the issue into their own hands and talking to each other. In the many years Evangelista has been handling cyberbullying, he said that has only worked a few times and it is generally not a good idea.
“They need to understand what the process is,” Evangelista said, adding that parents need to realize that this is a law and they need to let the appropriate officials handle it.
Regardless of the situation, Evangelista said it is important to help kids realize the consequences of their actions.
“We need to help kids understand that what they say and what they do does affect other people,” he said. “And that needs to be laid out."