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El Cerrito school combats social media bullying: ‘These anonymous posts are shaming and harassing students.’

on March 4, 2024

As class ends for the day at Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito, students stream through the gates, blinking into the sun. They board buses, climb into cars, or sit on the cement blocks that line the campus. Many of them crouch over their phones. 

Some of these students are being bullied or harassed through social media apps. 

Korematsu’s principal, Matthew Burnham, has been on a crusade to shut down bullying accounts on Instagram for years. So far, he says, he’s been unsuccessful. 

In an email to the Korematsu community in September, Burnham notified parents of “several instagram pages that have content posted about KMS students.” 

“These anonymous posts are shaming and harassing students,” he wrote. “For many years I have tried to get the pages taken down, but Instagram continues to allow this harassment and mistreatment online.”

He’s referring to private and public Instagram accounts created by and about Korematsu students. Some of these accounts are short-lived. In them, students submit “confessions,” which range from innocuous commentary to put-downs of their classmates. The account host, typically using a pseudonym, can decide to post the message or not. 

A vertical concrete sign with the word Korematsu from top to bottom sits on the right side of the frame, with a plant in the foreground, and a dark-clothed person in motion through the entrance of the grounds, which are concrete in the middle and with a piece of a one-floor green and silver building to the left.
Korematsu Middle School (Julia Haney)

On Feb. 5, Burnham wrote again to encourage parents to “review your students’ social media accounts and pages.”

“In all my years of flagging these accounts to Instagram I have yet to see a single page taken down,” he wrote.

Asked about the specific accounts and how many students are involved, Burnham said in an email response, “I don’t have a way to answer this question.”“If you search for the name of almost any school on Instagram, you’re likely to come across such accounts,” he said.

Online bullying is widespread, with 46% of U.S. teens reporting being bullied or harassed there.

Ted Lam, president of Korematsu’s Parent Teacher Student Association, described Burnham’s efforts to address the problem as “very diligent.” 

“He’s a little bit like the messenger that keeps saying the same message and not a lot of people are paying attention,” Lam said. 

Parent Doug Gary said the principal and vice principal are addressing the situation as best they can, but that the blame lies with social media companies. 

“From what I know, the social media companies are a little bit like tobacco companies. They have the science, they know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it anyway,” he said. 

“We hand kids the potential weapon and then we’re surprised when they do bad things with it.”

Social media companies were under fire in a January Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety. Senators levied a range of allegations against Meta — which owns Instagram and Facebook — and other companies, including failure to prevent online bullying and harassment. 

“While many are honest about their age, we know young people can misrepresent their date of birth,” Instagram says. To address this issue the company says it is “investing in accessible and privacy preserving age verification tools.”

The guide also says, “It’s against our policies to create an account, post photos or make comments for the purpose of bullying or harassing someone else.”

Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

Korematsu Middle School with a one-story building to the left and a two-story building to the right, and about 15 students walking in between the two, wearing hoodies and backpacks.
Students outisde Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito (Julia Haney)

According to West Contra Costa Unified School District’s student and parent technology policy, parents accept “full responsibility” for their child’s use of technology outside school. 

But technology is mobile and students carry it from home to school. Most kids in the U.S. have phones by age 12, according to a recent study. Though WCCUSD has a no-phone policy during class, students can still use their phones at lunchtime and before and after school. 

Behavior technician Ramon Bray says it’s hard to monitor tech use at school. He thinks parents and the kids themselves have to play a role in managing technology and social media use. 

“Schools can monitor to a point,” he said, “but if it’s not being enforced in the homes, it’s hard to get the kids to follow the directions of the school system.” 

At home, some parents struggle to understand the new social media platform of the day and to determine an appropriate level of social media monitoring. 

Students at Korematsu told Richmond Confidential they have a range of social accounts. 

“It’s like Whac-A-Mole,” said WCCUSD board member Leslie Reckler. “You get your hands around Snapchat and then suddenly they’re on Instagram, and then they’re on Discord.”

As parents, teachers, administrators and students navigate these waters, hundreds of school districts across the country are suing social media companies, alleging their products have damaged students’ mental health. 

WCCUSD says it has reported social media accounts to the police on a couple of occasions when there is “imminent danger or clear evidence of harassment,” and that police have investigated. 

On Jan. 24, the WCCUSD board announced it had initiated legal action against social media companies in a closed session; whether it is connected to the nationwide lawsuits is unclear. WCCUSD did not respond to requests to clarify the district’s legal action. 

Local school districts also have been on the defending side of lawsuits involving social media use. In neighboring Albany, the discovery of a racist Instagram account in 2017 sparked a series of lawsuits, including two against the school district for taking disciplinary action against students who engaged with the account. When things go wrong on social media, students, parents and school districts are all in the crossfire.

Middle school, in particular, can be a fraught period. In the U.S. only 26% of students report being happy in eighth grade. And in WCCUSD, 36% of seventh graders say they are chronically sad

As the crowd begins to thin outside Korematsu on this winter day, one student waves to a group of his peers as they walk up the sidewalk toward him.

“Hey guys,” he says with a smile. They glance in his direction, but quickly look away and pass him without acknowledging the greeting.

People of Richmond: Why do you think teens are so sad?

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