Special Report: Scared at School

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Caught on tape, bullying has gone main stream, from street corners to the internet. Those scenes can lead to something much worse.

October 16th, 2009: Shots rung out at Carolina Forest High School. Yellow tape marked the room where School Resource Officer Marcus Rhodes shot and killed 16-year-old Trevor Varinecz, a junior at the school.

State investigators say the special needs student, a high-functioning Asperger's teen, went after the officer with a knife and was killed in self defense.

Why did this child snap? Trevor's mother, Karen, thinks she knows.

"We believe he was asking for assistance from bullying, and had carried a knife into school for protection," she wrote to the Asperger's Society website. "Many students came to his funeral services and handed us letters about the bullying that he was enduring. Trevor had never told us about this."

The Varinecz' were in the dark.

Now is the time to ask yourself as a parent: are you in the dark too?

A panel of teenagers from Socastee High School agreed to sit down and candidly talk about bullying, what really happens, and what parents probably don't know.

"If you say something serious to a teacher they are going to say something," sophomore Delaney Sage said. "You don't want the bully to come back and get you."

Senior Ty Sessions agreed: "That's why a lot of kids don't say something. They're scared the bully will come get them."

What's worse, these teens are dealing with a new world of bullying, where the threats aren't just made in the halls or cafeteria.

"Bullying for our parents was getting beat up, stuffed in a locker, getting stuff stolen from you," junior Austin Charles explained. "I don't know that physical bullying happens very much around here. Cyber-bullying happens a lot."

The cyber-bully has a new arsenal of weapons with cell phones and social networking sites. Forget the sticks and stones. Words will hurt, and they're not afraid to text, type and hit send.

Facebook and Myspace have become a spot to not only connect but torment.

"Some people go as far as to creating entire pages devoted to making fun of somebody," Charles explained. "I think they call them hate books and hate spaces."

Youtube is a popular site for fight videos. These kinds of posts fall into the bullying category, according to Socastee High School student resource officer Erik Karney.

"They think this is the real world, like an MTV show," Karney said. "In a heartbeat they'll video someone getting beat up and post it online."

Karney spends his days not only patrolling the halls, but also patrolling the internet.

"If they're being bullied on there it's not different than real life and they'll come to school with fear," Karney said.

School resource officers, principals and Horry County school administrators are trying to arm themselves, hoping to keep that fear out of the classroom. But in a world where technology changes every minute, protecting their students - your children - is a gray area.

James Bradley, who is in charge of risk management for Horry County Schools, says in order to know the problem, he's doing whatever he can to know the cyber-bully.

"Since it is pristine territory, most administrators know very little about cyber-bullying," Bradley explained. "First thing I did was arm myself with some strategies by going to a bullying class that dealt with cyber bullying."

He asks district administrators, "How technologically savvy are you?" Then he teaches principals what to look out for, how to spot and how to deal with a cyber-bullying problem.

Socastee High School Principal Dr. Paul Browning says that aside from knowing the avenues where a cyber-bully lurks, the key to staying on top of this ever-evolving issue is communication with the students.

"I think the thing for us is to maintain the trust with the students so that if they are having an issue they can come to use and talk about it," Browning said, adding that tracking down the problem is one of the easier parts of busting a cyber-bully. "Once they put something in writing in cyberspace, they're on the record."

If you've got it on record, it's easy to prosecute. You can be charged with unlawful communication. It's a misdemeanor, a magistrate level offense, and carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine if convicted. And it covers all electronic communication.

That's how they end the bullying. As for stopping it before it starts? That's a work in progress.

"Could I see something in writing as far as strict guidelines on what to do? Not at this point," Karney said. "Not at this point because no one knows what guidelines to set."

Browning agreed, saying "There's definitely more that can be done. There are 10-year-olds with cell phones and Facebook accounts. There are many people who are not emotionally ready to enter into these kinds of relationships and they're being forced to by peer pressure and society."

Taking away one of the cyber-bully's biggest weapons, the cell phone - at least in school - doesn't seem to be in the cards either.

"That's an ongoing discussion," Bradley said. "Will they try to control it? That's an ongoing discussion. But I think what needs to happen is that the cell phone policy needs to be the same in every school."

As the schools figure out how to get on the same page, administrators say their best line of defense to help keep your kids safe in school happens in the home.

"There are a lot of parents who don't check. They think it's an invasion of privacy," Karney said. "Well, that computer is invading your home. That's the world. And some of these kids, no one is looking after them."

Believe it or not, your kids may agree.

"There are so many things your parents don't do - so many things they don't search for," student Francisco Gonzales said. "They don't look at you and say, 'Is there anything going on in school?' They don't take the time to look at you and ask those questions."

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