Politics & Government

Think your kid's tech obsession is a problem at home? Look how it affects school

Can your child’s cellphone be used to commit a crime? Richland County schools say they are

Richland County schools investigated more than 500 police reports involving students and the use of technology and social media to commit crimes, including inciting fights, stealing and issuing school shooting threats.
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Richland County schools investigated more than 500 police reports involving students and the use of technology and social media to commit crimes, including inciting fights, stealing and issuing school shooting threats.

A teacher at C.A. Johnson High School said she was attacked after taking a student's cellphone away during class because he was listening to music on it.

Lingering after others had left, the 16-year-old student grew irate, yelling, “I’m not leaving without my (expletive) phone!”

The teacher, who had told him he could have his phone back before lunch, threatened to call security. Yelling “On my momma, you better get outta my way!” the student lunged toward her desk, punched her in the stomach, pushed her to the floor, took his phone and left, according to a police report taken after the alleged assault in August 2016 at the Columbia school.

The teacher, 51, managed to get up and make it across the hall to find help.

The incident is just one example of how technology — pervasive and celebrated in public schools — is also posing a threat.

In high schools across Richland County, technology has fueled assaults on teachers and students, exposed young minds to disturbing and inappropriate content, and made more work for administrators and law enforcement officers who are forced to track down stolen phones and laptops and investigate threats made with ease on social media.

That reality is the dark underbelly of technology in schools, according to a review by The State newspaper of more than 500 police reports. The reports were written since fall 2016 by Richland County sheriff's deputies and Columbia police officers working in 15 Richland County high schools. Of those reports, a third involved trouble caused by cellphones, laptops or social media.

The State newspaper also asked the Lexington County Sheriff's Office for incident reports in the high schools where their deputies work. The agency provided statistics on the types of incidents happening in the county's high schools but said it would cost around $1,500 to provide the full reports.

The incident reports, taken in high schools in Richland 1, Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5, show the challenges created by technology in schools are wide ranging:

A Richland 2 parent in 2016 alerted school leaders that someone had posted a threat to shoot up her daughter's school on social media. As officials investigated, the post was deleted.

Last year, a Lexington-Richland 5 teacher took a student's cellphone when the student plugged it into an outlet reserved for a classroom guest. The student then came from behind and wrapped her arm around the teacher's neck and took the phone back.

A Richland 2 father confronted his teen daughter last year for having explicit photos and video of herself on her school-issued laptop. After the argument, the teen did not come home on the bus as expected. Later, she was found in another state where she had met someone on vacation whom she kept in touch with online.

A Richland 1 student's computer was confiscated this year after she was found watching a video of a woman repeatedly striking an infant in the face. The computer was searched for other content showing illegal activities and taken as evidence.

Several students in the county have reported receiving threatening text messages, sometimes from unknown numbers. One student bullied over text messages was hit by an unknown flying object at school and then received a text reading, "Did you get my message?" Another said a student was sending her several text messages including the picture of a handgun and saying he was going to shoot her.

Cellphones, laptops and other technology are fueling assaults and other problems in schools. Nease Detroit Free Press

No spokesperson for the three districts would comment on the incidents raised in the reports. Lexington-Richland 5's Katrina Goggins cited a policy of not commenting on incidents that may be part of ongoing investigations.

However, Goggins said her district "has very few reported incidents of technology misuse and other violations involving technology on campus. This is due, in part, to the fact that we are constantly reviewing our policies and procedures and getting input for our student leaders, administrators and teachers on this issue."

To Bunnie Ward, who lives in Lexington-Richland 5 with middle school- and high school-age children, none of the examples from the reports were surprising.

"These situations are horrible. But if that is part of your identity, and the cellphone is a tool for you to maintain your identity, then you're going to have a severe reaction when that is taken away," Ward said of students assaulting teachers over phones.

As for online bullying and inappropriate sharing, Ward said she tries to teach her children to be mindful of how their online behavior will be perceived. She also drives home that they are not the sum total of their social media profiles.

"Who are you as a person? What are your values? Who do you want to be when you grow up? What kind of person do you want to be? They need to see themselves as more than what they see online, or what they see on social media."

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Making 'digital citizens'

Pressure from parents, teachers and administrators has led to more freedom for students in cellphone policies, said Richland 2 spokesperson Libby Roof.

At one point, it became more of an issue trying to prevent students from having cellphones out in class "versus we needed to find a balance," she said. "Confiscating and keeping cellphones can become problematic," she added. "It's personal property that people pay a lot of money for."

Rather than suppress cellphone use, the district tries to prepare students for their digital lives by offering instruction in digital citizenship and internet safety, she said.

Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5 allow high school students to use their phones before and after school, during their lunch break and in "free zones" designated by the school's principal, according to the districts' student codes of conduct.

In class, the districts limit the use of electronic communication devices to educational and instructional purposes, leaving how to interpret appropriate use largely up to teachers.

Richland 1's student code of conduct forbids using cellphones or other technology for cyberbullying, sending sexually explicit messages or photos and contacting peers or family about any incidents where school leaders have intervened.

Schools also have a handbook that "outlines various classroom rules, including addressing electronics and other items that may not be appropriate for use during class," said Richland 1 spokesperson Karen York.

"However, because we integrate the use of technology into the curriculum, there may be lessons and activities (such as those that involve using certain apps) for which students are allowed to use their cellphones," York said.

Problems abound despite policies

Despite districts having policies for using technology, problems still arise.

In Richland 1, for example, filtering software on school-issued laptops did not prevent a student from having a video on her computer that seemed to show a child being abused.

Administrators at Dreher High School confiscated the student's school-issued laptop in March after she was found watching a video of a woman striking an infant in the face.

The student said her cousin downloaded the video from Facebook. The computer was seized, searched for any other videos showing criminal activity and sent as evidence to the Columbia Police Department.

Threats to schools, made easily on social media, are another problem for administrators and law enforcement.

Since fall of 2016, law enforcement took reports on at least eight potential shooting threats against high schools in the three Richland County school districts. Of those, three involved social media:

In September 2016, a parent at Blythewood High School sent a school administrator a screen shot of an Instagram post about “shooting up Blythewood High School.” As officials were investigating and making calls, the Instagram post was deleted.

In November 2017, law enforcement and administrators at Lower Richland High School, in the rural southeastern part of the county, investigated a Snapchat post where someone said they were thinking about shooting up the school. That incident led to the arrest of a Columbia High School student, according to the report.

Two days after 17 students and educators died in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Dreher High School investigated a potential threat after learning a student posted a video of the shooting on Snapchat with the comment, “I do not feel anything when i see this.” School leaders searched the student's backpack, notified his parents and determined he wasn't a threat.

After Florida, reports of threats to schools "seemed to spike," making a lot of work for school leaders, Richland 2's Roof said.

Jeff Blake jblake@thestate.com

"Just because it's on social media doesn't downplay the need for us to investigate it. If we become aware of a threat, we are going to investigate it. That threat can be written on a wall, written on a note, or written on social media. We are obligated to investigate it to the fullest potential that we can and that's not always easy," she said.

Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Rodney Bayne, assigned to Westwood High, said students are helpful in those investigations. When a student in February was accused of threatening to "shoot up" Westwood High on Twitter, several students showed Bayne the post on their phones. The threat was among several made against S.C. schools after the Florida shooting and led to the arrest of a Blythewood teenager.

But sometimes the ability for students to communicate with their parents and peers whenever they want can cause an administrative headache.

As news spread of the shooting threat made on Twitter against Westwood, students started calling their parents. It wasn't long before several hundred parents showed up at the school wanting to sign their children out, Bayne said.

Meanwhile, parents and students did not know that law enforcement had determined the suspect was out of state and nowhere near the school.

"It caused chaos," Bayne said. "You've got all these parents coming up, cars bumper to bumper, and you've got to move your administrators from regular duties because you've got so many parents coming to sign their kids out."

Not your parents' bully

About a third of all U.S. teenagers, age 12 to 17, said they had been the targets of cyberbullying at some point, according to a 2016 survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center.

And in S.C. public schools, about 500 of the nearly 7,000 bullying incidents reported during the 2013-14 through 2015-16 school years involved cyberbullying. Those number only count what students report to administrators, a S.C. Department of Education spokesperson said.

At Dreher in October 2017, a weekend spat on social media spilled out into the courtyard at lunchtime when two feuding students settled their score with blows. Neither of the students reported being bullied and decided to “take matters into their own hand(s),” according to a police report detailing the incident.

Two other students decided to record the fight with their cellphones and posted it on social media after the incident, violating school policy.

In a December 2016 incident at Dreher, a student posted on Instagram about having injured his finger with a drill bit in class. Another student in the same class then belittled him on Instagram about the injury. The last message the injured student received read, "I will finish this at school."

The two argued through social media until later, when the injured student said the other attacked him in the parking lot at school.

Janicka Boyd's trouble started when she posted a joke on Facebook about underclassmen wearing fake Jordans, referring to the popular Nike shoes named after the NBA star Michael Jordan. The former A.C. Flora student was just messing around, enjoying her moment as a senior, she said.

But it quickly turned ugly when an underclassmen thought the post was directed at her. She and her friends began harassing and intimidating Boyd nonstop, according to Boyd. In the hallways, the girls would hurl threats and insults. On social media, the girls used Boyd’s images to make jokes about her that were shared online. It went on for about a month, said Boyd, now 19.

“I was just aggravated. Every time I turned around, I was being tagged in something on Facebook … I walk past her and she has something to say,” Boyd told The State newspaper. “I told my mom about it because I was about to fight her one day at school.”

“Me being 18 (at the time) and a senior,” she added, “I would’ve been kicked out, missed graduation and went to jail.”

Janicka Boyd.jpg
Janicka Boyd is a former A.C. Flora High School student

The power of social media to amplify teenage drama to a dangerous level was on full display Saturday when a horde of teens gathered at the Village at Sandhill, an upscale shopping mall in northeast Columbia, to watch fights that were announced on a Facebook post.

Richland 2 school board member Monica Elkins-Johnson, who was dining nearby and intervened, later posted on Facebook her exasperation that children showed up to see the fights.

Elkins-Johnson, who declined to comment for this article, urged parents on Facebook to monitor their children's whereabouts, friend groups and social media accounts.

One in four U.S. teens says social media has a mostly negative impact on them, according to a Pew Research study conducted in March.

For Ben Grayson, a 17-year-old class graduate of Blue Ridge high School in Greenville, it was "pretty bad social anxiety" and a feeling that social media was a waste of time that drove him to start deleting his social media accounts.

"I kind of went ghost mode, meaning the only good group of friends that I have are people I'm constantly seeing in life," Grayson said.

Ben Grayson.jpeg
Ben Grayson, 17, of Greenville, S.C. graduated from high school Wednesday, June 6. He has decided to delete most of his presence on social media and spend less time on his cellphone. (2018) Provided

"It's all about getting likes on Instagram or having a bunch of people seeing your Snapchat story," he said. "Every time I posted something, I would worry, are they going to like my photo? If somebody doesn't like your photo, you wonder if they actually like you."

Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself
Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, @dulaneycd
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