Westbrook student brawl spreads on social media, school grapples with cellphone policy

Westbrook Middle School principal Laurie Wood said the school’s student cellphone policy is being reviewed to address cyberbullying and other abuse. Chance Viles/American Journal

A video of two Westbrook Middle School students fighting and being cheered on by classmates may prompt authorities to limit cellphone use after it was widely shared on social media this month.

Principal Laurie Wood confirmed that the fight earlier this month was based on something posted on social media. Other students used social media to provoke confrontation.

The students recorded the fight at recess and recorded themselves laughing at him as he performed, showing a “lack of empathy,” Wood said.

The fight is just one example of the school‘s cellphone and social media problem, Wood said. Students also engage in cyberbullying and post racist or homophobic remarks on popular sites like Snapchat.

When parents and family members saw the video of the fight, they called the school and many were outraged, Wood said. A call came in from a relative in Florida who found the video online.

Outdoor recess has been suspended for this grade level and a seminar has been held to discuss the issue.

“For us, it’s double,” Wood said. “It’s the huge distraction potential of the phone itself, and then it’s being used for social media, which is 90% of our problems.”

Westbrook Middle School serves students in grades 5 through 8. From now on, students in grades 7-8 can have their phones on them when at school, but are asked to limit their use to the start or end of the day.

Students in grades 5-6 are not allowed to have their phones on them. There are similar restrictions at colleges in Windham, South Portland and Portland.

Despite the restrictions, students are still finding ways to use their phones. Many teachers don’t confiscate phones, Wood said, because students need to communicate with their parents.

Staff are aware that students use a large number of online chat rooms where homophobia, racism and bullying run rampant, she said, often during school hours.

The social media traffic we see is never positive,” Wood said. “Anonymous pages are set up without any indication of who posted them, often simply by posting embarrassing photos or videos of children, even teachers. Often these things are also shared in private chat rooms.

Social media platforms such as Snapchat make it difficult to control the issue because they allow anonymous accounts and messages are automatically deleted, Wood said. However, a large number of racist or homophobic cats seen via screenshots are “mind blowing”.

“When we go to do an investigation, it disappears because it disappears, and students can’t always capture it, because then people will know they said it,” Wood said. “We can only hold them accountable if it appears that social media traffic indicates a dangerous situation at school.”

When they get useful information about the misuse of social media, school officials “meet with students, talk with parents, and impose consequences such as school suspension, which has a strong restorative basis. “, she said. “We could separate students into classes, or we could also keep them out of recess.”

The question caught the attention of the school committee.

“I know that the WMS administrative team is working hard to get to the root of some of these issues and find the best way to support struggling students,” school board chair Sue Salisbury wrote in an email. mail to the American Journal. “It will be an ongoing discussion as we as a school committee find the best way to support not only students, but also staff and families.”

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, 95% of adolescents had access to a smartphone. This same report states that about 41% of teens have used Snapchat and 52% have used Instagram.

Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist and professor at Brown University who studies the role of social media in adolescent mental health and development, cited a Common Sense Media study that found that “on average, adolescents spend close three hours a day using social media or watching online. videos.”

This has long-term impacts on students’ mental health and can lead to depression or anxiety, Nesi said.

“We have pretty strong evidence that cyberbullying is associated with a number of mental health issues in victims,” ​​Nesi said. “Of course, mental illness is almost always the result of a number of different factors both online and offline, but we know cyberbullying can be a significant stressor.”

Worse still, social media is “constantly in your face,” according to Sue Scheff, founder of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts, Inc. and author who has written extensively on the subject.

“Years ago, a teenager who wanted to be naughty used to pass nasty notes on a classmate, and this was usually confined to school,” Scheff wrote to the American Journal in an e-mail. -mail. “It would stay in the rumor mill for about a week at most and then be forgotten. Now, thanks to technology, it’s magnified by a million.

Some Westbrook parents are also worried.

Christina Fernald, the mother of a 7th grader, said she often worries about her children’s social media presence and constant phone use. She said she would support a policy limiting all phone use in schools until eighth grade.

I think that’s a problem,” Fernald said. “Personally, I don’t have any (social media) but we have other family members who are on those and they keep tabs on my kids.

Nicole Axelsen said she chose not to give her middle schooler a phone and that strict rules around cellphone use “should be a top priority,” she said.

“IIt goes hand in hand with safety,” Axelsen said. “These two things go hand in hand.”

Scheff said she doesn’t necessarily support limiting phone use, but advocates for internet literacy classes and parenting adjustments.

“It helps kids realize their actions at a young age and pause before posting, to think about the consequences of their actions,” Scheff said. “It could even start with the implementation of a smartphone contract with guidelines and limits.”

Westbrook Middle School includes digital literacy in its health curriculum, but may consider strengthening it in addition to future phone policy changes.

“This’It’s a healthy examination at this critical time in our culture, but also in the lives of our children,” Wood said. “They have been through the pandemic. Their social relationships are more important now.

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