Finding the line

A swarm of questions and thoughts raced through Mona’s* (’19) mind as she read the messages on her friend’s phone.

Formed by a group of boys in her grade, the group chat had existed for almost four years, but her friend had only just been added. Mona was horrified by what she found. The screen was filled with message upon message of cruel remarks, including those about students’ and teachers’ appearance and sexual orientation. The messages frequently used derogatory and sexual phrases, as well as racial slurs.

For weeks, the comments stayed on Mona’s mind – the sexually degrading comments making her question herself and her image. “I felt awful about myself. I thought I was ugly, I thought I was stupid, I thought that people thought I was a slut,” Mona said. “I thought my entire reputation was ruined.”

Later, when Mona confronted the boys, she received mixed reactions. “Some of them just apologised and felt really bad…” she said. “But one of them said we were just ‘roasting’ people, that it didn’t actually mean anything, that [they] were just trying to make people laugh… that it was just meant to be funny.”

The boy’s seemed unaware that they had crossed the line between what they considered “banter”, and harassing another student.

Mona sees the problem as a lack of understanding of what is unacceptable. This was made clear, she said, when one of the boys approached her with an empty apology. “To me it sounded like ‘I’m sorry you saw it’ not ‘I’m sorry [I] said it’,” Mona said.

This occurrence isn’t as rare as one might think. In an instance nearly identical to that of Mona, Jane* (’17)  was enticed to join a group chat for the “banter amongst friends”, but instead found herself the target of malicious comments.

The next day, Jane told them that they should be happy it was her who had read the messages “because I know a lot of other girls were more unstable and if they had seen it then [the boys] would have gotten suspended or expelled for what they did,” she said.

Coming from the opposite end of the girls’ circumstance, Tony* (’19) acknowledges responsibility for a verbal online attack, recalling a situation where a harmless group chat devolved into a barrage of spiteful, sexually charged comments.

It began when one member sent a message making fun of a girl in their grade. Before long, the initial remark gained momentum and Tony found himself and others “ranting” about the girl. “A lot of people said some things they did not truly mean and thought were funny, but it was hurtful,” Tony said.

As if the comments weren’t enough, Tony and his friends decided to take it a step further, adding the girls they had attacked to the chat.

Then, as Tony put it, “in an instant,” what had been “harmless banter”, was turned into blatant harassment.

Although she was deeply unsettled by the comments made about her, Mona was too embarrassed to tell her parents, or the administration. “I didn’t want the school to be mad at me…” she said. “I felt that I had brought it on myself at the time, I felt that I was overreacting.”

Since then, Mona has realised that she “wasn’t just one person” and by speaking out she could have helped find a solution to what she sees as a more frequent problem at ASL.

Yet, Mona admitted, she wouldn’t have felt comfortable approaching the administration or confiding in a teacher.

Although Mona finds bullying to be a larger issue within the school, High School Principal Jack Phillips does not believe it to be atypical of other high schools.

However, Phillips does identify the abuse of technology as a current trend among teens. “The appearance of anonymity through things like Snapchat or Yik Yak just encourages the behavior,” he said. “Normally most students would be able to check [themselves] because they have social cues to know [what] is unacceptable but, when translated through the medium through the phone or the computer or the internet, you don’t have those checks.”

One of the greatest challenges Phillips faces is fostering an environment where students are comfortable stepping forward after such incidents. While he sees strong relationships between students and adults at ASL, he understands that “it is still difficult for students [to] come forward and talk about these issues.”

While Phillips is not completely certain how this environment will be created, it is at the forefront of the administration’s efforts. “We should give opportunities for students to talk to one another about [how] they can share,” Phillips said. “Maybe that it [is] advisory, maybe that’s in health class, [or] maybe that’s another arena.”

Sidebar: Singled Out

Zack Longboy, Deputy Editor-in-Chief

A few years ago, Jayden was brand new to ASL. While his transition was a stark one and he was plagued by some unrest at home, he faced his most daunting challenge among his peers. “I was new, I didn’t have any friends, and these kids saw a sensitive, vulnerable kid and decided to try and take advantage for their own amusement,” he said.Jayden* has been torn, chewed up and spat out. It’s all behind him now, or at least it looks that way on the surface. But it’s not easy to move on when you’ve been singled out, picked on and severely bullied into a state of depression.

Unaware of the students’ harmful intentions, Jayden  “saw it as making new friends.” Yet the so called friends? “They saw it as somebody that they could toy with.”

In what Jayden can only describe as “twisted”, the group of students sought him out and installed him in their friend group. It got really perverse and out of hand really quick. I didn’t really feel like I could go to anyone else because… I didn’t really feel like anyone else would accept me,” he said. “At least these guys were willing to hang out with me, even if I was getting victimized.”

Along with verbal attacks in a group chat, Jayden was also physically beaten by the boys. However, he believes the online aspect of their interaction played the most painful role in the harassment. “I think it is a pack mentality,” he said. “Guys trying to get respect out of things that they normally wouldn’t say or do.”

And in his opinion, this isn’t an isolated behavior. “[Being online] makes it so much easier,” he said. “I think honestly, if the administration went through every ASL group chat, most of those people would get expelled.”

Instead of reaching out and helping him through the trying times in his home life, the new “friends” turned on him mercilessly.

The effects were far reaching. Even today, he believes he still carries some skeletons from the year and half of abuse. “I was always really depressed; I didn’t want to do anything. My grades went down a lot. I just didn’t really care about anything,” he said. “All my interests went out the window during that point. I just felt alone.”

While Jayden could never muster the courage to break himself from the vicious cycle, evidence of the harassment was eventually found and reported to the school.

Yet, once the cloud of discipline had settled, Jayden felt conflicted, and even guilty. “I just didn’t want to have all that responsibility on my hands. I felt really bad because I thought of [my harasser] as a friend,” he said.

However, the subsequent apologies of his harassers soon turned this initial feeling of guilt to anger – their apologies seemed shallow. “They’ve told me they are sorry. But I don’t really know. I don’t think they know the full extent of what they really did [to me],” Jayden said. “I mean, I remember especially [one] apology, it was mostly about me forgiving him, rather than him feeling badly or genuinely sorry for what he did.

The hardest part for Jayden was that looking back on the situation, he feels it was exceedingly preventable. While he is hesitant to place the entirety of the blame He highlights an unwelcoming community for new students as the cause. “I just feel like the way ASL students are when it comes to new kids is very cold. I feel like they are very insensitive; they just don’t give people a chance,” he said. “If you’re not into sports or don’t have something intellectual to say, they cold-shoulder you.”

In his opinion, it was the conformity of ASL that led to his isolation. “There’s this very typical ASL type that you can smell from a mile away. And if you don’t fit into that you feel kind of isolated,” he said.

Aside from changing this culture towards new students, Jayden would say that an increased mindfulness of the “line between banter and [harassment]” is the most important part of changing this behavior. “I’m not one of those people who think every little thing is a problem, but I do see it sometimes where it just gets out of hand,” he said.

His situation, however, was decidedly more malicious – there was no misinterpretation of ‘banter’. “They knew what they were doing,” he said. “They saw a kid that they could victimize because I was vulnerable. They just wanted to have control, be dominant.”