Editor’s note: Model the cyberinteractions and civic engagement we want our kids to use

I attended a panel of school resource officers this week that Chief Deputy Pat McCarty of the Door County Sheriff’s Office convened for an article that our new reporter, Sam Watson, is working on. When the conversation turned to bullying, we heard that the biggest challenge in local schools was cyberbullying.

This probably won’t surprise anyone, and it’s not unique to Door County, of course. Nor does it occur only among the student body of a school district, given that cyberspace has no borders. The taunts, threats, criticism and shameful behavior crosses districts, crosses counties and sometimes comes from other states – as happened in a case where a student who had moved on was still familiar with the social networks of the local district and launched a campaign of intimidation.

The days are long gone when adults could separate children with a firm “break it!” Painful verbal punches, beatings, criticisms and teasing come quietly and are endured in silence.

Where do students learn to interact with their peers on social media like this? Who do they model besides adults?

Cyberbullying among adults is so common that we don’t even classify it as such. We call it ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘expressing our opinion’. We even bully bullies. Those people are the “haters”.

Last week, a new building in Baileys Harbor sparked a social media maelstrom of verbal punches, beatings, criticism and ridicule when the new signs were erected. The building, built by Todd Haleen, has space for his business and a few others, and it will house 30 people in 11 units on the second floor.

The businesses have already moved in and are open, but the building is not completely finished, he told me last week. Some of the finishing touches include sheathing the columns with masonry and planting trees in the grassy area between the building and the sidewalk.

Haleen, a Door County native who lives mostly off the water, built the building in less than a year. He said it was the hardest thing he had ever done, and he did it to create housing for the workforce, to bring more retail to Baileys Harbour, to cement his business, to find a way to retire, and to give his four children an option for a lifestyle in their hometown.

Haleen began working on the building last fall, and a rendering of its appearance, complete with signage, was displayed out front on a large wooden sign throughout construction.

Haleen started working on the building last fall, and this project was the complete opposite of a secret. A rendering of its appearance, complete with signage, was displayed out front on a large wooden panel throughout construction. We ran a story late last year when he started construction and posted this same render showing the building and signage. He worked with the town of Baileys Harbor even more than a developer normally would because a state workforce housing grant was involved.

Yet once the building was constructed and the signs put up last week, people reacted in surprise and many recoiled in horror. The social media venom was strong. Some people supported Haleen, but harsh criticism reigned. The building, but more so the signage, has become a symbol of “all that is wrong with the development of Door County”.

Haleen told me that the panels looked bigger than in the renders and if he could do it again he might make them a bit smaller. But he’s run out of gas and cash, and he’s followed all the local zoning laws. Baileys Harbor is Door County zoning, and the signs are compliant with that code, as are all aspects of the building.

Also, Haleen thinks the signs and the building are beautiful.

Which, in this case, is the point. If the building and signs comply with the zoning code adopted by the city, that means that all cyber comments boil down to vehemently expressed preferences. Good luck changing someone’s taste with your opinion.

What can people do instead of venting their emotions on social media, which never brings anything anyway? They can investigate how this building came about, the laws and zoning codes that informed it, including signage. They can bring like-minded people together and channel them through the appropriate channels, and work to help create the kind of community they want for the future, including its aesthetic.

It doesn’t change anything that has already happened. Preparing for the future is also a long process and not for the faint-hearted. But it’s called civic engagement, and we’re all supposed to know how to do it. Trying to influence people in the cyber world has certainly become an easier way to engage, but that doesn’t change our communities. It doesn’t teach our children that civic engagement is the only way to positively impact the real world that all of us who live here share.

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