Looking back, Principal Susan Sambuceti regrets how she responded when some of her Livermore middle school students were viciously attacked online, among them a deeply depressed 13-year-old girl who had already changed schools to escape bullies.
Instead of phoning the girl's parents, the Mendenhall Middle School principal told the girl to ignore the online insults. The administrator now says she did not realize how ruthless the anonymous postings had become -- the worst calling the girl "ugly and a whore" and goading her to commit suicide. In February, the girl tried to kill herself.
Today, the girl's mother is railing against the school's ineffective actions. But school officials are frustrated as well, and searching for answers about how best to respond to incidents and insults that may start off campus but then spread rapidly through a school community, smartphone by smartphone.
"We're all kind of trying to figure this out," Sambuceti said. "But we need to figure this out because kids are getting hurt."
Since 2008, online cruelty in the Bay Area has been linked by some to the suicides of Audrie Pott, a student at Saratoga High; of Jill Naber, a Los Gatos High School freshman; and the attempted suicide of Amanda Brownell, who suffered severe brain damage when she hanged herself in a restroom at San Jose's Del Mar High School. Brownell was taken off life support last month and died on April 16.
Fifteen percent of teens using social media and surveyed in 2011 reported they had been targets of online cruelty in the past 12 months; and 88 percent had seen it, according to a report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Although a new state law requires schools to investigate victims' complaints, it doesn't require informing parents or the authorities, as they must for certain kinds of abuse.
But the mother of the Livermore teen, furious about how the traumatic online attack was handled, said that decision should not be left up to schools. "There was no reason for the principal not to call us," she said. Sambuceti said she told the girl, who is not being named because of the sensitive nature of this story, to tell her parents -- which the girl and mother said didn't happen.
Most schools, overwhelmed by the ever-changing virtual world, struggle to investigate and remove offensive posts, console victims and encourage parents to keep tabs on their children's online activities.
Oakland high schools have been hit hard this year with girl-shaming sites, often seen as "Ho" and "Confessions" pages featuring lurid stories, images and even the phone numbers of teenage girls. Similar sites have popped up in Livermore, Hayward and in other districts. Posted photos copied from Facebook or taken at school invite students to make anonymous lewd or insulting comments.
Oakland school officials counsel victims and are expected to alert parents about cyberbullies. But when it comes to how each school responds, "there's no consensus, really," said Troy Flint, an Oakland Unified School District spokesman.
School districts have only recently started to add online civility to existing character education programs and to train teachers how to respond to Internet assaults.
In Pleasanton, student resource officers monitor social media sites and investigate sources, while principals notify parents of cyberbullying incidents. Online bullying now appears in the curriculum of D.A.R.E. programs, health classes and parent workshops there.
But getting parent support has been difficult. Fewer than a dozen people attended a recent Internet safety workshop for parents at Pleasanton's Amador Valley High School.
"I think the attitude among parents is 'It's not going to happen here,'" said Pleasanton police Officer Craig Hobizal, a student resource officer. "But look at Los Gatos and Saratoga. Those are similar ... cities."
Few districts have gone as far as Santa Clara Unified, which made digital citizenship a part of its technology education graduation requirement.
The Santa Clara district has a guiding principle for its students: "That you act online the way you're expected to act face to face," said Kathie Kanavel, the district's director of educational media.
One six-week class at Buchser Middle School helps students learn to use technology responsibly. In one lesson, they discuss and rate online scenarios on a spectrum of "harmful" to "harmless," using a free curriculum developed by Common Sense Media.
The district is testing similar material for lower grades, starting in kindergarten.
In 2008, California passed one of the nation's first cyberbullying laws, giving school administrators authority to discipline online bullies. "Seth's Law" in 2012 expanded the law, requiring schools to investigate student complaints about online bullying. Even if the bullies are off campus, they can be disciplined if the attack causes an on-campus disruption.
But the Livermore teen's mother said the state should treat cyberbullying as seriously as any other kind of assault.
"If you just keep deleting the sites, it's not going to stop," she said.
The incident has taught lessons.
"One thing I learned from this is that I need to notify all parents," Sambuceti said. "In retrospect, I wish I would have called (the girl's mother), no question."
A school and police investigation immediately after the complaint found no students to punish, Sambuceti said.
"It was pretty awful for a while, and we couldn't substantiate any of it," she said. "It's like chasing a tail or a piece of yarn. ... You want to be aggressive about it and investigate it to the best of your ability, but it's impossible."
A bereaved Sacramento-area mother is lobbying to make California require schools to alert parents. Lisa Ford-Berry testified Wednesday before the state Senate Education Committee on a bill she co-authored to create the California Bullying Hotline.
She founded the B.R.A.V.E. Society anti-cyberbullying campaign after her son killed himself on his 17th birthday at his Sacramento-area high school in 2008.
His sexual orientation was the subject of online rumors spread by a student, but each time he told the school, he was told to ignore it. The school never told her, Ford-Berry said.
"I had no idea until Michael died," she said.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Give children a code of conduct: If they wouldn't say something to someone's face, they shouldn't text it, post it or say it in an instant message.
Ask your kids if they know someone who has been cyberbullied: Sometimes they will open up about others' pain before admitting their own.
Set consequences for bullying behavior: Tell your children they will lose their phone and computer privileges if they degrade and humiliate people.
Online extra: Go to www.mercurynews.com/extra to see more anti-bullying tips, online resources for parents and a video of Santa Clara students learning digital citizenship in a classroom.