A mother’s view of cyberbullying: How fear, anger stretch beyond screen to family

We know how bullying affects youth. It’s debilitating. But the effects of threats, harsh words and sick jokes extend beyond students to families.

Alexis Henkel, 15, of Bradley, showed her fortitude and bravery recently by speaking publicly about an extreme case of cyberbullying, allegedly by a former Orono High School girl. The death threats against her brought agony to her parents and twin brother, who simultaneously worked to protect her and address their own anger.

Alexis’ mother, Judy Henkel, 53, talked recently about what the family has endured since her daughter started receiving dozens of violent threats on a Tumblr blog account in late September. “It kills you,” she summed up. She has ideas for what parents and schools can do to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

For Judy, the effects of the cyberbullying on Alexis made her fear for her daughter’s life. Her daughter told her on a Sunday what was happening — that she was getting messages from someone about how she should be raped, how her children should be raped in front of her and how she and her house should be set on fire.

A few days later, Judy learned news of the worst possible result of cyberbullying: A 16-year-old girl in British Columbia, Amanda Todd, committed suicide after posting a YouTube video explaining her struggle with bullying and depression.

“That hit home so hard,” Judy said.

“I held (Alexis) in my arms every night,” she said. “I told her, ‘You have to make a promise to me that you won’t do anything until you talk to me.’ I said, ‘We’ll go see whoever we have to see. You go talk to whoever you have to talk to. Whatever mountains we have to move, we’ll move, but you don’t do anything. You taking your life doesn’t solve anything. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’”

The family alerted the Veazie Police Department, and Judy said she credits Sgt. Keith Emery for working tirelessly, even on his days off, to get to the bottom of the threats. “He was our biggest shoulder to lean on. Without him, it never would have gotten solved,” she said.

On Nov. 1, Emery charged a 16-year-old girl, who now attends school in southern Maine, with two counts of terrorizing: one misdemeanor, one felony. The girl admitted to making many of the threats and will appear in court Dec. 24. Since charging her, Emery said the girl has violated her Internet-use conditions several times.

Cyberbullying — any type of bullying — must be taken seriously. “It’s not a joke. It’s not fun. It’s not ‘kids being kids.’ It’s sick and disgusting, and it needs to be handled. It’s a crime, and it needs to be handled like a crime,” Emery said.

Judy agrees. She wants to see the horrors of bullying in the open, so teenagers know it’s not acceptable. The effects of bullying should not be invisible in schools, she said. “It needs to be plastered on the walls. It needs to be everywhere,” she said.

There should be a place where students can write a note anonymously, without being seen, so teachers or administrators can take action, she said. Student leaders, potentially as part of a school group, should address bullying and rude comments in school and online.

What can parents do? Make sure you know what your son or daughter is doing online, Judy said. Make sure you’re friends with them on Facebook. Make clear what is acceptable to do online. And if they break the rules, don’t let them use the computer for anything other than schoolwork.

Most importantly, though, parents must keep the lines of communication open, Judy said. Have a trusting relationship.

“If I didn’t have that, I would have buried my daughter,” she said. “Just keep listening. Keep your ears open. There’s so much that can happen in such a short time.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.