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Teaching Safe Tech: How One Phoenix Area School Tackles Cyberbullying And Sexting

If you ask Sonoran Trails Middle School principal Bill Dolezal to describe life in middle school, he’ll tell you it’s like one big learning experience. Kids that age are going to make mistakes.

But he said, today, especially with the omnipresence of social media and digital technology, policing those mistakes at his Cave Creek school is getting much more complicated.

"A couple of years ago we really had some students making some poor choices with electronic devices," Dolezal said.

From cyberbullying to sexting. "Both verbal inappropriateness and then pictures being sent," he said.

And Dolezal’s experience isn’t unique.

According to the CDC, about 15 percent of high school students say they were cyberbullied in the last year. When you look at the issue of sexting, those numbers are even higher. In a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 20 percent of high school students reported they’ve been involved in some form of sexually explicit instant messaging.

A few years ago, Dolezal said he reached a breaking point with a growing number of students being referred to his office for technology related violations. But rather than looking to punishment, he decided to treat the whole thing as another learning experience and started working with a local psychologist who then developed an entire set of curriculum on the subject. 

"We talk about inappropriate posting. We talk about digital reputation, plagiarism and then cyberbullying," said Dr. Lisa Strohman, founder of what’s now known as the Digital Citizens Academy.

"What I'm really proud of is the diversion program," Strohman said. "Which is really a program of when they make a mistake, because they will online, how do we compassionately and responsibly give them options and help them find their way back to center."

Strohman is a psychologist based out of Scottsdale. She said teens’ motivations to be relevant haven’t changed much over the years. But technology has changed the playing field.

"When I was in school I may have had 1,500 or 2,000 kids in my high school that I was either known or not known. Kids today now are competing with 3 million users online at any given time," she said.

Today a growing number of school districts nationwide are incorporating digital responsibility and awareness in their curriculums.

For principal Bill Dolezal, the move now feels like a natural step in evolving the standard curriculum in his school’s general education. But, he explained, the numbers are what really do the talking when it comes to expanding these efforts beyond these middle school walls and reaching high school students.

"Our technology referrals went down like 70 percent," Dolezal said. "So it was dramatic how much of an impact it made."

He added, while those numbers are encouraging, school officials know they can’t get too comfortable because technology and the social media landscape are always changing.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.