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School officials work quickly to thwart 'Yik Yak' on campus


Anonymous app used by kids to bully others, threaten school violence



March 11, 2014
NORTH FULTON, Ga. – As school systems pour money and resources into stopping bullying in classrooms and playgrounds, bullies have simply moved their tactics online – where punishment is difficult to dole out.

Recently, a new "app" hit the adolescent population, allowing anonymous postings to everyone within a certain geographical area who also has the app installed on their phones. Yik Yak, with its seemingly innocuous photo of a cartoon yak, flew under the radar of most parents, but quickly caught the attention of school systems across the nation.

Under the cover of anonymity, students began using the app to not only post random thoughts, but also to bully other students in exceptionally cruel ways. It was also used to threaten violence at schools and to students, resulting in school lockdowns from Mobile, Ala., to Massachusetts to Chicago.

In Fulton County, a school spokesperson confirmed a threat was made to a high school in Sandy Springs through a Yik Yak comment.

"The only situation where a threat was posted [that school officials are aware of] was at Riverwood High School," said Susan Hale, communications manager for Fulton Schools. "Someone, presumably a student, made an anonymous [fake] bomb threat against the school last week."

She said Yik Yak came to the attention of school officials a few weeks ago, and North Fulton high schools quickly banded together to make parents aware of its use and misuse.

At Milton High School, Principal Cliff Jones sent a message to parents encouraging them to closely monitor their child's social media use and to talk to them about possible consequences.

"Based on recent events with Yik Yak and other emerging technologies, I encourage [you] to talk with [your child] about common sense boundaries," said Jones. "What our children post now can be seen by colleges and employers in the future. This reality is not considered by our children when they are caught up in the moment while using social media."

Unlike many social media apps, Yik Yak does not require someone to follow the poster, so a message could reach thousands of people within a five-mile radius. While the app is free, the poster can pay to reach even more people within the radius.

The good news is the shine may have already come off Yik Yak. Like so many social media applications, parental involvement makes it less attractive to teens and tweens (think Facebook or My Space). An unscientific polling of kids (via Twitter) found all had heard of the Yik Yak app, but few use it, or have it on their phones.

For one Cambridge High School freshman, the threat of in-school suspension for those found misusing the Yik Yak app was enough to get him to take it off his phone.

Last week, Cambridge Principal Ed Spurka sent a message to parents saying Yik Yak postings can be "especially vicious and hurtful, since there is no way to trace their source" and [posts are] disseminated widely in seconds.

"I encourage you to check your child's phone regularly and delete this app if it is present. Please know that we are taking measures at Cambridge to monitor this app," said Spurka.

Cyber bullying has emerged as the biggest concern in the field of bullying, which encompasses physical, verbal and emotional bullying, said a psychologist who works in the field.

"Cyber bullying can be easier due to the 'social distance' of the bully from the victim," said Dr. Sam Bernard, a Chattanooga-based psychologist whose firm focuses on psychological crisis preparation and intervention. "The 'punches' can be much larger and long lasting due to the potential audience witnessing the act."

He noted a considerable number of youth suicides have been attributed to cyber bullying.

"Parents and care-givers need to be sensitive to the emotional change in a youth and address it quickly," said Bernard. "Listening without judgment and taking an active role in advocating for justice can help ease the sting of the pain of cyber bullying."

He also advised parents to maintain evidence of the cyber bullying to help bring a bully to justice.

School action limited when it comes to cyber bullying

NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Exactly what can a school do when online threats are made off campus?

The Fulton School System policy does not specifically address social media bullying, but does prohibit "the bullying of any person by any means or method, at school, on school property or at school-related functions."

Discipline for after-hours cyber bullying becomes questionable, and officials admit the school's reach may be limited.

"It's a gray area for how to handle discipline," said Susan Hale, spokesperson for Fulton Schools. "If a student bullies another while on school grounds, perhaps by making posts on a social network, then the district is able to assign discipline. But if it occurs at home or elsewhere in the community, then we have no jurisdiction unless it can be directly linked back to the school."

She advised parents whose children are threatened online in any way to contact the police since the school may not have jurisdiction.

What is Yik Yak?

NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Launched by two college students at Furman University in South Carolina three months ago, Yik Yak quickly gained 100,000 users after it was introduced at five college campuses in the South, including the University of Georgia.

It was designed for college students to post complaints through anonymous posts within geographical locations, but has quickly trickled down to middle and high school students who used it primarily for cyber bullying. It requires no password, no user name and no registration – just a phone with GPS capabilities to determine where the poster is located.

In a variety of interviews, Yik Yak officials say they are aware of the misuse of the app. They claim they delete reported "inappropriate" comments as quickly as possible, but so far, blocks for younger users are not working. There is no moderation of comments on Yik Yak by a third party.

Users of Yik Yak may think all posts are anonymous and untraceable, but police did make an arrest based on a threatening post, with help from Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is not unique among social media apps. Other sites, including Whisper and Secret, have similar capabilities for anonymous postings.

JC 03-13-14

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