By Susan L. Wright
Editor's note: Many of the girls placed at the PACE Center go through the justice system and their identities are protected as minors, which is why only their first names were used.
The team of young women from Pace Center for Girls in Ormond Beach had no problem relating to the project they completed and presented recently.
The girls had put together a presentation on cyber bullying, a topic that hit home with many of them -- and, for at least one, it was a painful, personal reason.
Like teens everywhere, the girls at PACE are connected to friends through Facebook and other social media pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week ... and even if they haven't experienced it personally, they're aware of the ugliness and prevalence of cyber bullying.
When their teacher offered them the opportunity to work on a project to raise awareness of and combat cyber bullying, they were quick to agree.
Their teacher, Susan Miller, said she may have made the suggestion, but the girls themselves came up with the concept of producing their own program to present at a school assembly.
When they presented the program, they also passed around a survey for the other students -- the results showed 90 percent of those surveyed had experienced cyber bullying at some point. According to Ms. Miller, 50 percent of the respondents said the bullying had gone on for "a while," often weeks or months.
Breanna, 16, knows too well how cruel cyber bullying can be and how permanent its effects. While she's been the victim herself, in a case of bullying that lasted for three to four months and she described as "mostly a racial thing," she said what affected her the most was a case of a friend who was bullied online, but never confided in her.
"Someone I dated and loved very much, he was cyber bullied a lot, but he never told me," she said, adding as she struggled to hold back tears, "It's really hard to talk about, but he committed suicide."
While that is an extreme outcome, the girls hope their project would help prevent someone from being assaulted online or help victims deal with the bullying in more positive ways.
Hannah, 16, said she thinks the online bullying can be worse than in person bullying, because the perpetrators can hide their identity online or just avoid seeing the victim's pain.
"They can just go online and they can make a fake profile, so no one knows what they are doing," she points out.
Breanna added she thinks 85 percent of their peers believe things they read online are reliable.
Krista, 17, said she thinks that a lot of the bullying is set off by a breakup. "People go on and say things about the person they're breaking up with. Or their friends take sides and start posting rumors and things about the other one."
She, too, had a personal example to relate, but their teacher and mentor, Ms. Miller, brought the conversation back to the general topic, what they've learned about how to counteract cyber bullying.
They talked about the ways young people could deal with cyber bullying in a productive way. Victims can block out the people who try to post cruel and hurtful things on their Facebook page, but not everyone knows how to do that. Hannah said she actually has taken down her own Facebook page and started another one to get away from people she had "friended."
Destiny, 17, explained a lot of times on Facebook people accept "friends" even when they don't know them -- they may connect as friends of friends, but even then you never know if they're actually friends with the person they're using as a contact.
She said she's learned not to accept friend requests from as many people and to keep her page to those she actually does know.
She added that she changed her Facebook page identity at one point just because she got tired of have scores of friends of friends who post the same thing all the time.
"The best thing to do if you're being bullied," said Cara, 17, "is to ignore it, do not respond, and tell an adult."
Ms. Miller reported there was one case where the bullying was so vicious, she wanted to report the incidents to the police but she was told they couldn't do anything because she'd responded with angry, negative posts of her own.
Cara recounted another case where the bully accused the victim of actually initiating the bullying.
"But the girl who made the first complaint had screen shot the messages so when the police got involved, she was able to prove that the other girl had been the one sending the bullying messages," she said.
Cara added emphatically, "Don't respond back (to bullying accusations or messages.) Just ignore it online and tell an adult."
"I don't understand how people can do the things they do online," Hannah said, adding, "There's always going to be the people who can sit behind a keyboard and say horrible things, because they don't see what they're doing to people."
"We wanted to get all that in the project, so maybe it'll help some of the girls here -- we showed simple easy ways to get someone out of your life."
The presentation they put together includes a video showing the effects of bullying, the ways young people can be bullied and ways to get it to stop, a discussion afterwards and several posters that have been left on the walls of the halls in the school.
The girls hoped to reach out to current and potential victims to let them know, Destiny said. "At least they'll know they're not alone. And that it is possible to do something about it."