Alvarado was among the first school districts in the state to make laptop computers an integral part of the classroom experience.
The computers are routinely assigned to seventh and eighth graders, who use them during the day and take them home at night. Fourth and fifth graders use school-assigned laptops during the day. The district is also exploring whether to permit high school-age students to use their own computers for class work.
In recent weeks, Alvarado ISD has put the finishing touches on cell phone-related technology with which students, parents and anyone else in the community can report physical bullying and cyberbullying to district authorities.
“By the end of this week, Apple iPhone users will be able to access the Alvarado IS application,” Kyle Berger, the disrict’s director of technology, said. “In 30 to 60 days, the application will work with other phones. We want to use every angle we can to let people know we’re here to help.
“There is no perfect system for solving bullying. But technology is ever-changing, so methods are ever-changing, too. We’re trying to show kids the proper use of technology. We hope we’ll be able to stop what seems to be a rise in cyberbullying in our society.”
Alvarado ISD already has strict technology controls in place inside the district, though it has no way to filter text messages among phones owned by students.
“Students cannot access social media sites within the school or on the school laptops they take home with them,” Berger said. “A large majority of cyberbullying comes through text messaging. We’re trying to educate students on cyber antics, what to do and what not to do. It’s so much easier for kids to be cruel from a distance because they don’t see the immediate reaction [of the victim].
“They don’t realize they’re hurting the person at the other end. They become sheltered from the actual response, and it snowballs from there. A person can go from victim to bully and back in just a week.”
Several Alvarado ISD campuses don’t allow phones at all. Some require them to be turned off and placed in lockers, out of easy reach during the school day. Those phones can be useful in school activities, though, if used correctly, Berger said.
“The high school’s approach to cell phones is becoming more hybrid as the phone is used as an instructional tool. A lot of kids surf the Internet to do research or use the picture application for a science experiment. We teach the kids proper phone use and etiquette. For a while, there was a big problem with cell phone pictures, but the evolution we’re seeing in the industry is that cell phones can be made to work for you.”
Last week, Reggie Cajayon of the Texas School Safety Center spent time at Alvarado Intermediate School and Alvarado Junior High discussing cyberbullying and general Internet safety with students.
Part of Cajayon’s message was about eliminating cyberbullying.
“Young people can recognize when someone is being mistreated,” Cajayon said, “Adults can help the most in two ways: giving youth the confidence and skills to stand up for themselves and each other appropriately, and being the trusted adult they can turn to when needed.”
Alvarado ISD Superintendent Chester Juroska added that parents have a role in monitoring what their children are doing with their electronic devices.
“Reggie confirmed something that I have been telling parents for several years, and that is, if they are not regularly monitoring what their children send and receive on cell phones or social networking sites, they are risking a severe heartache — for themselves and for their children,” he said. “It is not a privacy issue. It is a safety issue.”
So far, the Alvarado bullying hotline is averaging only a few complaints per month.
“It’s been a slow process,” Berger said. “And whenever you have an open hotline, you can have people messing around.”
The phone application will presumably hone the reporting process.
“Anybody will be able to download the application. Parents will be able to e-mail teachers and check their kids’ attendance, grade, even what they had for lunch that day.
“The bully reporting function can be anonymous. We’re not saying we have the magic bullet, but this allows a student to reach out in another way. Cyberbullying takes so many forms. It’s left to the child’s imagination.”