Anonymous app Yik Yak stirs up cyber-bullying in schools

By Brad Klosner • Last Updated 11:38 am on Thursday, November 13, 2014

During a break from class, from left, Alex Campbell, Anne Hilt, Zach Davis and Alec Fowler check the updates on their various social media feeds while sitting in the Greenville High School lounge. — Daily News/Brad Klosner

GREENVILLE — Like many other schools across the country, Greenville High School has felt the stinging effects of cyber-bullying.

And it has happened again.

Recently, a new form of cyber-bullying came to Greenville High School through a newer anonymous social media app dubbed Yik Yak.

“We’ve had social media stuff, like on Facebook, where people are posting nasty things,” said Greenville Public Schools Superintendent Pete Haines. “This is far more aggressive. This is quick and unfiltered.”

Yik Yak is an app which allows users to post anonymous 200 character messages on a digital community board. What distinguishes it from other anonymous social media apps, such as Whisper, Secret and Rumr, is that users are connected within a very small geographical radius, usually about 1.5 miles. App subscribers also are connected to a limited amount of other users.

Although the site explicitly states the services are for subscribers who are “at least 18-years-old” (or 17 if they have their parent’s permission) and recommends “no one under college age” should join, high school students in Greenville and the greater nation have gained access to it.

“I think it was created for college students and it should stay there,” said Greenville student Zach Davis.

After several students came forward and reported the app was being used to post “vile and nasty things” directed at individual students, school officials decided to take action.

“We wanted to squelch that,” said Greenville High School Principal Jeff Wright. “We wanted to get out in front of that and say this is not how were going to treat one another.”

School administrators contacted the Yik Yak support team which created what is called a “geofence” around the school. Basically, the app creators make an area around the school, based on latitude and longitude, which stops the app from being used within that specific geographical reference. The geofence also has been created around Greenville Middle School.

However, the geofence only works when a user is connected to WiFi. Users who disconnect from WiFi are still able to access the app through 3g or 4g networks.

Wright and other school administrators also tried to find the individuals who were posting the hateful messages but, due to the nature of the anonymous app, were unable to do so.

With the help of the student body, the school got proactive.

“Sites like this just allow that total anonymity,” Wright said. “What we tried to do was support the students who were being bullied. That nasty stuff being said about them online doesn’t define who they are.”

In addition, a student-run assembly which aimed at raising the “current culture” of the high school was held on Tuesday. Students and teachers alike spoke about understanding and respecting the differences in each individual student as well as bringing the student body back to a level of mutual respect

“The students wanted to pull everyone together,” Wright said. “I’ve been bragging to anyone who will listen how positive our student body is this year.”

Student leadership and student groups also started positive Twitter accounts such as GHS Love, GHS Chillzone and GHS Vibes, among others, to promote a positive online message about and around the school.

“It was bad but it’s getting better,” said Greenville student Alec Fowler. “We are believers in leading by example. Leadership is action not a position.”

Some students at the high school are not impressed by the anonymous nature of Yik Yak or other apps like it.

“I think if you can’t say something to someone’s face you shouldn’t say it,” said student Annie Hilt. “I don’t think we had a bullying problem until someone wasn’t looking over their shoulders.”

The school does have cell phone and social media policies in place as well as disciplinary actions when it comes to cyber-bullying — everything from warnings to suspensions and even potential expulsions. However, Greenville High School Assistant Principal Todd Oatley said cyber-bullying discipline can be a gray area right now especially if it happens off campus.

“You’re going to deal with it whether you want to or not,” Oatley said. “It’s going to come into your building.”

It comes down to a legal jurisdiction of what school administrators can do. Oatley said if cyber-bullying happens off-campus but directly creates a “nexus to schools” then school administration can and will take action. Oatley also said even if that direct connection to the school cannot be made, administration will attempt to contact parents if there is an online concern about one of the district’s students.

“It’s a judgment call,” Oatley said. “We’ve taken the aggressive, proactive approach of if we think we can make a connection that someone is fearful because of something that was said online then we make that connection.”

Parents also are encouraged to keep an eye on not only their children’s online activity but also their reactions to social media.

“We really need the parents’ (help with this),” Oatley said. “There is some stuff that is worthy of the parent knowing about.”

By far the best way for administration to not only identify a potential cyber-bullying problem but deal with it comes from the help of students. Wright and Oately both said they think many more students want to come forward to report online bullying but are afraid of being labeled as “snitches” by their peers.

“What we’re getting the most power out of is when kids come forward,” Oately said.  “The key is to protect their anonymity.”

Nonetheless, Greenville High School officials are committed to molding students in a way that creates the potential for the most successful future possible.

“We hit a little bump in the road in the past couple of weeks,” Wright said. “We want to create and support students in their digital citizenship. We want them to be respectful and responsible to others and themselves.”

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