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Anti-bully pulpit

Schools invite students into video games targeting intimidation

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / April 16, 2009
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It's OK to play video games at Bridgewater-Raynham middle and high schools. It's even encouraged.

Of course, the schools choose which games. And they all share the underlying goal of teaching students about the dangers of bullying on the Internet and in real life.

"Braincells," created by the Canadian software company LiveWires Design Ltd., is a series of interactive computer games and quizzes.

It was tested in late January by Hanson Middle School students in police officer Rick Nawazelski's DARE class. Two weeks later, it was launched in the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District, the first in the nation to adopt the game.

In the first 10 days, the link to the game was shared among more than 1,000 schools in British Columbia and Massachusetts on the gaming site braincells.net, said LiveWires President Drew Ann Wake. That number grew to more than 1,600 by the end of March, and the company is providing free access to the game across Massachusetts this month.

A teacher can open the link during the school day, enabling any computer at the school to log on. Hits have occurred from as far north as Leominster and as far south as Fall River, with the greatest concentration in the Brockton-Whitman-Rockland area, where the company has partnered with Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, said Wake.

Wake chose Hanson Middle School because of her long association with Nawazelski, the state's DARE officer of the year in 2008.

"He is computer-savvy, which is important because you never know what is going to happen to a game that is in beta" testing, Wake said. "He has strong interest in his students and always sends up thoughtful feedback."

The middle school's principal, Martin Geoghegan, said that while he hasn't seen many instances of cyberbullying, "it's a lot easier to talk about before it happens."

The students were thrilled to play a role in testing the game, said Geoghegan, adding, "Kids spend 60 percent of their time outside school with some kind of computer device."

Ware also has a decade-long connection to Raynham Police Chief Louis Pacheco, who met Wake when she was seeking US testing sites for other games.

Pacheco is an executive officer of the International High Technology Crime Investigation Association, and is active in regional organizations that focus on computer and electronic crimes. When Wake contacted Pacheco this time, he again enlisted Cruz and Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter to launch the game.

Pacheco has seen the dangers of the Internet firsthand.

"I have parents come in with printouts from their kids' IMs, and their faces are white with shock," he said. "It starts on the computer and then gathers the same dynamic as when a person behind the wheel becomes King Kong."

Teens don't comprehend the basics, Pacheco said, and that's frustrating. "They don't understand that one picture can go to one billion people in less than one second. And it's the same thing with rumors."

At Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School last year, an incident began with "trash talk," Pacheco said, and eventually some girls superimposed another girl's face on a naked body. Several of the girls sent out the image with their cellphones and posted printouts in the halls. The victim ended up transferring to another school.

In Mansfield, three high-school students were suspended in February after distributing the seminude photos that an underage student posted of herself on MySpace.

At Middleborough High School in February, images that were passed around by cellphone were confiscated, and in Falmouth, prosecutors are weighing child pornography charges against several middle-schoolers who used cellphones to share a seminude photo of a fellow student. A similar incident occurred in Holbrook late last month.

"Once upon a time you had the odd Polaroid picture that someone put out there," said Mansfield Police Chief Arthur M. O'Neill. "That only got passed so far. But now you have the Internet. We want to prevent this, but how do you do it? It's as frustrating as underage drinking."

According to Wake, one solution is education through such methods as Braincells. Set in fictitious "Braincells High," the game covers three areas: computer and cellphone hacking, bullying, and cyberbullying.

Wake said she aimed it at middle school because that's when most kids receive their first cellphone.

"Computer games often glorify bullies. This game does the reverse. It shows how students can act together to bring an end to bullying. . . . Very few bullies will take on a group."

Both district attorneys fully support the educational approach.

"Braincells not only teaches children appropriate cellphone behavior, but it also helps them recognize unsafe behavior," Cruz said.

Sutter agreed: "By teaching our children how to respect one another in a world that is increasingly becoming an online one, we are preparing them for adult life and preventing bullying from growing into real-life violence."

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.