New Canaan police actively are investigating one case of cyberbullying each at Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School, and kids found to have perpetrated crimes using social media may face charges that range from harassment to disseminating child pornography, according to the police chief.
Though he could not comment specifically on the active investigations, Police Chief Leon Krolikowski said the department receives a handful of complaints each year from families where kids are the victims of cyberbullying, and that the incidence of those cases is on the rise.
“We are seeing an increase with the anonymous cyberbullying, with apps like Streetchat and Yik Yak, which allow kids to anonymously bully each other, and they may be a little bit more intolerant and aggressive in some respects,” Krolikowski told NewCanaanite.com. “Any time we see threats and references to weapons, we are pretty aggressive in trying to uncover who is responsible.”
The comments come as the community, including the school district, grapple with the continuous emergence of free, downloadable, and anonymous social media applications used by tweens and teens. Yik Yak, which is text-based, has given way this academic year to Streetchat, which allows users to upload photos, post comments and vote submissions up or down. The New Canaan High School feed includes derogatory references to individual students and school administrators, including photos of those kids and comments or alterations to the photos that are often sexual and explicit. The high school’s acting principal emailed parents about Streetchat on Tuesday.
Depending on just what content is posted through the social media—for example, users in New Canaan often refer to posting nude “selfies” of classmates—and the age of the offenders, charges range from juvenile offenses, such as threatening, that are sealed or erased, to 18-year-olds charged as adults with public criminal records, Krolikowski said.
He noted that not every complaint of cyberbullying that comes to police leads to criminal charges, and first-time offenders, depending on the severity of their actions, may be given an opportunity to course-correct. Cyberbullying investigations are handled discreetly by the department, due in part to the ages of those involved and to protect those affected against re-victimization.
Even so, though kids often do not think about the consequences of their actions, the truth is that the outcome of bullying may be life-altering or even life-ending for its victims, Krolikowski said.
“When we do get complaints, we aggressively investigate and we will charge those responsible if we find that a crime has been committed,” the chief said.
Police investigations often run parallel to internal school investigations into reports of bullying that are mandated by recently expanded state and federal laws.
In New Canaan, the district’s “safe school climate coordinator” role—itself a legal requirement—is Darlene Pianka. In that position, Pianka is a point person for all complaints involving bullying of any kind (the district’s handling is spelled out in its Safe School Climate Plan), and a recently expanded definition of “bullying” includes when it happens online.
For example, it could involve using “the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications” to perpetrate “written, verbal, or electronic communications, or physical acts or gestures that are based on any actual or perceived differentiating characteristics, such as race, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance, or mental, physical, developmental or sensory disability, or by association with an individual or group who is perceived to have one or more of such characteristics.”
Asked about the prevalence of its own investigations in the schools, Pianka said that at any given time, there is at least one going on in one of the schools, and that they’re more common at the middle and high school levels than elementary school. Those include “direct contact” bullying and cyberbullying complaints, and one truly isn’t more common than the other, she said.
“I would say that cyberbullying is a larger problem outside of the school setting, or has been outside the school setting to this point,” she said. “That is something that we have had to grapple with.”