Westbrook students’ brawl spreads on social media, school grapples with cell phone policy

Mabel R. Acton

Westbrook Middle School Principal Laurie Wood says the school’s student cell phone policy is being reviewed to curb cyberbullying and other misuses. Chance Viles / American Journal

A video of two Westbrook Middle School students fighting and being egged on by classmates may prompt officials to limit cell phone use after it was shared widely on social media this month.

Principal Laurie Wood confirmed that the fight earlier this month was based on something posted on social media. Other students used social media to provoke confrontation.

Students recorded the fight at recess and recorded themselves mocking it while it was happening, showing a “lack of empathy,” Wood said.

The fight is only one example of the school’s cell phone and social media problem, Wood said. Students are also cyberbullying and posting racist or homophobic remarks on popular sites like Snapchat.

When parents and family members saw the video of the fight they called the school and many were outraged, Wood said. One call came from a relative in Florida who found the video online.

Outdoor recess was suspended for that grade level and a seminar was held to discuss the problem.

“For us, it’s twofold,” Wood said. “It’s the enormous distraction potential of the phone itself, and then it is used for social media, which is 90% of our problems.”

Westbrook Middle School serves grades 5-8. As of now, students in grades 7-8 may have their phones on them while at school but are asked to limit their use to the start or end of the day.

Students in grades 5-6 are not allowed to have their phones on them at all. There are similar restrictions at middle schools in Windham, South Portland and Portland.

Despite the restrictions, students still find ways to use their phones. Many teachers don’t confiscate phones, Wood said, because students need to communicate with their parents.

Staff is aware that students use a large number of online chatrooms where homophobia, racism and bullying are rampant, she said, often during school time.

Social media traffic that we see is never positive,” Wood said. “Anonymous pages are put up with no indication of who posted it, often just posting embarrassing pictures or videos of kids, even of teachers. Often these things are also shared in private chat rooms.”

Social media platforms such as Snapchat make policing the issue difficult because they allow anonymous accounts and messages are automatically deleted, Wood said. However, a large number of racist or homophobic chats seen via screenshots are “breathtaking.”

“When we go to do an investigation, it’s gone because it disappears, and students can’t always screenshot it because then people will know they told,” Wood said. “We can only hold them accountable if it seems that the social media traffic indicated an unsafe situation at school.”

When they do get useful information about social media misuse, school officials “meet with students, talk with parents and do consequences such as in-school suspension, which has a strong restorative basis,” she said. “We might separate the students in classes, or we might keep them out of recess as well.”

The issue has caught the attention of the school committee.

“I know that the WMS administrative team is working hard to get to the root of some of these issues and figure out the best way to support students that are struggling,” School Committee Chairperson Sue Salisbury wrote in an email to the American Journal. “This will be an ongoing discussion as we as a School Committee figure out the best way to support not only students but staff and families.”

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone. That same report states that about 41% of teens used Snapchat and 52% used Instagram.

Psychologist and Brown University Professor Jacqueline Nesi, who studies the role of social media in adolescents’ mental health and development, cited a Common Sense Media study finding that “on average, teens are spending almost three hours per day using either social media or watching online videos.”

That has long-term impacts on students’ mental health, and can lead to depression or anxiety, Nesi said.

“We have pretty robust evidence that cyberbullying is associated with a number of mental health difficulties among victims,” Nesi said. “Of course, mental illness is nearly always the result of a number of different factors both on and offline, but we do know that cyberbullying can represent a significant stressor.”

Making matters worse is that social media is “constantly in your face,” according to Sue Scheff, founder of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts, Inc. and an author who has written extensively on the subject.

“Years ago, a teen wanting to be mean used to pass nasty notes about a classmate, and it was usually confined to the school,” Scheff wrote to the American Journal in an email. “It would remain in the rumor mill for about a week or so at the most and then be forgotten. Now, thanks to technology, it’s magnified by a million.”

Some Westbrook parents are worried, too.

Christina Fernald, the parent of a 7th-grader, said she often worries about her children’s presence on social media and constant phone use. She said she’d support a policy limiting all phone use in schools up to eighth grade.

I do think it’s a problem,” Fernald said. “I personally don’t have (social media) but we have other family members who are on those and they keep an eye on my kids.” 

Nicole Axelsen said she opted to not give her middle schooler a phone, and that strict rules about cell phone use “should be a top priority,” she said.

“It’s coupled with safety,” Axelsen said. “These two things go hand in hand.”

Scheff said she does not necessarily support limiting phone usage, but advocates for internet literacy classes and tweaks to parenting.

“This helps kids realize their actions at a young age and pause before they post, to consider the consequences of their actions,” Scheff said. “It might even start with implementing a smartphone contract with guidelines and boundaries.”

Westbrook Middle School includes digital literacy in its health curriculum but may look at beefing it up on top of future phone policy changes.

“It’s a healthy review at this critical time in our culture but also in our kids’ lives,” Wood said. “They’ve been through the pandemic. Their social relationships are more important now.”

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