N.Y. county tackles 'cyberbullying'

/ Source: The Associated Press

Westchester County has hired an expert on "cyberbullying" to talk to students, teachers, parents and police about young people who harass their peers with mean-spirited Web sites, hounding text messages, invasive cell-phone photos and other high-tech tools.

Parry Aftab, executive director of wiredsafety.org, will conduct a "summit" on the issue Feb. 8 at the Westchester County Center, County Executive Andrew Spano announced Tuesday.

She will be assisted by Spider-Man under an arrangement between her organization and Marvel Enterprises Inc. "Kids will listen to him," she said, pointing at a man in a Spidey outfit during a news conference.

Aftab said that while schoolyard bullying has always been a problem among young teenagers, "We didn't have the power to communicate what we were doing to 700 million people with a click."

Aftab, whose organization is headquartered in Irvington, said examples of cyberbullying include "a Web site where children can vote for the ugliest, most unpopular or fattest girl in the school. It can involve sending private or very personal information or images to others or posting them online for the public to see. It can be annoying but otherwise harmless — or it can be dangerous, such as when it involves stalking and pornography."

Spano said a key issue in dealing with such problems is how to involve law enforcement without violating free speech rights, especially since much of the harassment is generated at home rather than at school.

"Kids, parents and schools need to know when to ignore it — just as schoolyard bullies are sometimes best ignored — and when to report it to law enforcement," he said.

Last year, a video of two Scarsdale high school girls engaging in a sexual encounter was widely distributed on the Internet and no charges resulted. In 2001, two Chappaqua high school boys escaped prosecution for allegedly operating an Internet site that listed girls' sexual secrets.

"No matter how offensive or how repulsive the communications were between these boys, they are protected by the First Amendment," District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said at the time.