In the digital era, bullying has increasingly left the school yard and entered cyberspace. Middle and high school students can become victims of harassment, embarrassment and threats sent through social media sites or can get caught up in an exchange of lewd and sexually explicit text messages, better known as sexting.

To deter teens from engaging in such activities, the Sunnyvale, Calif., Department of Public Safety partnered with Yahoo’s Trust and Safety division and developed a free Digital Safety Diversion Program that launched last August.

The department works with schools and school districts to provide the program to students. It’s made up of two courses that educate teens about the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying.

The department’s Lt. Tracy Hern said the program was designed with two approaches in mind. One course takes a proactive approach to try to deter teens from participating in cybercrime, yet also encourages them to report these types of crimes if they see them taking place. The first course takes about an hour and usually is done in an assembly style at a school to target a large group of teens.

If teens are arrested or cited for a violation involving social media, they go through the second program, which is a three-hour course the students attend with their parents. The course is done through juvenile probation as an alternative to going through the juvenile justice system.

Already more than 1,000 students among Sunnyvale’s four school districts have attended the program to learn about the issues involving cybercrime and taking proactive approaches to report incidents, Hern said.

“We talk about digital footprints, and we try to explain to the children that no matter what you put online that you think you’re going to delete, once it’s sent, it’s out there forever,” he said. “And it is nearly impossible to get anything off the Internet because it goes to so many different places.”

Government Takes Action on Cybercrime

To respond to the overwhelming trend of cyberbullying, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation on July 9 that would help schools more efficiently tackle issues related to such crimes. The law will go into effect July 1, 2013.

“Students today live in a cyberworld, it’s how most choose to communicate. It’s also how many are cyberbullied — whether through messaging, emails or social networking sites, it’s difficult for victims to escape the 24/7 exposure to threats, bullying or discrimination,” Sen. Stephen Saland said in a statement. “With this new law, when cyberbullying impedes a student’s ability to learn, victims and their parents will now have the ability to report the incidents to school districts to investigate.”

Cybercrime, particularly sexting, is becoming more common among teenagers. According to a report released in July by Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 28 percent of the 1,000 public high school students surveyed reported having sent a sexually explicit text or email, and 31 percent reported that they had received a sext.

Hern said his department doesn’t have exact statistics on how often cyberbullying and sexting has occurred in Sunnyvale since oftentimes the crimes go unreported. But since the program was implemented last year, he said there has been an increase in the number of reported incidents, which usually come from a third party — not the victim of the crime.

Hern’s department is targeting middle school students since they aren’t as familiar with cybercrime and hope by educating them at a younger age, it will prevent cybercrime. He said the department also adjusts the program for the different age groups and from school to school to make it more relevant to what a particular group of teens should learn.

Although only a year old, the program is expanding. Hern said law enforcement officers from 14 other California counties have been trained to run the program. The program has not expanded beyond California yet, however, Hern said one of the department’s goals is to expand the program to East Coast cities and counties since schools on the coasts have a bigger problem with cyberbullying and sexting than schools in middle America.

Conversation starter: How can schools and law enforcement agencies prevent teen cyberbullying and sexting? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.