Like a digital sleepover game, the Twitter account encouraged Pickerington students to share a secret crush under the cover of online anonymity. And the first nine posts played along –– it was the next 2,100 that, for the most part, weren't so sweet.
Like a digital sleepover game, the Twitter account encouraged Pickerington students to share a secret crush under the cover of online anonymity. And the first nine posts played along –– it was the next 2,100 that, for the most part, weren’t so sweet.
“Some of the things they talk about on this chat are illegal,” said Rob Walker, the superintendent of the Pickerington school district. “It’s disgusting.”
Students singled out their classmates by name in sexual fantasies written with all the innuendo of bathroom-stall graffiti. It spurred parents to call in complaints to the school district, which reported the website to police.
Meanwhile, police and schools in other districts already were dealing with similar websites, typically called “confession” or “crush” sites. Versions popped up in Bexley, Dublin, Grandview Heights, New Albany, Upper Arlington and several more districts.
School administrators say the websites amount to “cyberbullying” — not a new phenomenon, but in this incarnation the sites grew at a clip that surprised school officials. One of the sites catering to Dublin students has more than 1,500 followers.
“It just confirms for me that they feel like they can say almost anything if they’re not really saying it,” said Principal Mike Ulring of Dublin Coffman High School. “Faceless communication, to me, is just dangerous.”
This breed of website is also particularly difficult for schools to trace back to individual students, as some have done in the past to punish bullies who try to hide behind screens.
In this case, students add a layer of anonymity by submitting comments to an account set up with ask.fm, a website based in Latvia that is designed to be anonymous. Whoever runs the ask.fm account then channels the posts to a Twitter page that has no personal information.
“We can’t find out who’s running the site without subpoenaing records,” said Officer Shawn Dysert of the Worthington police, adding that most of the posts don’t cross the line as criminal. “ I find some of the stuff very offensive, but as a law-enforcement officer, I can’t do anything about that,” he said.In one case, officials at Worthington Kilbourne High School filed a complaint with Columbus police because a post read, “My dad has threatened to come into the school and shoot everyone numerous times.”
Some students have gone to teachers in tears over what has been written about them. The ask.fm website faced scrutiny after a 15-year-old boy in Britain hanged himself in April after taking abuse on the site.
Some posts on the local websites challenge the criticism, saying the sites are just entertainment. There also are versions set up to counter those sites, where students say nice things to one another. As the debate goes on, schools have struggled to combat the sites that they say distract from class work.
Bexley school administrators have threatened the harshest punishment they can impose if they identify students behind harassing posts. Even if a student doesn’t admit it, if administrators believe that they’ve correctly pinpointed a bully, they will discipline the person. And they have in a few cases.
Some feedback from the community has called Bexley’s response fascistic, said Mike Johnson, the district superintendent. He says there’s no choice. “Failure to act has us in a position of liability. We’re going to act,” he said.
Many districts have reported the websites as abusive to Twitter, which can shut down pages that violate its policy. When that didn’t work in Bexley, a technology worker filed a complaint with ask.fm. The site made for Bexley students was taken down.
Upper Arlington school officials told students that police were keeping an eye on the site. “The number of followers dropped significantly,” said Emilie Greenwald, the principal of Upper Arlington High School. That site is also disabled, although officials wonder whether it was shut down by Twitter or by the person who ran it.
Others have had less luck. Sites in Dublin and Pickerington still churn out crude posts, often dozens at a time. And new sites have appeared after others shut down.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” said Ulring, of Dublin Coffman. “You can create these sites with no accountability.”