BBS Bullying! Parents Rally!
Date: Friday, April 18 @ 01:27:40 BST
Topic: Big Brother
When Internet users log onto schoolscandals.com and click on the Beverly Hills High School link, they will find a message calling one student a "retard" who "deserves to go to hell." A posting in the Frost Middle School chat room describes a student as a "homosexual with a pigeon-like face and a penguin-like body."
Such name-calling and gossip about students are common on the 3-year-old Web site, similar to the crude messages scribbled inside of school bathroom stalls for decades but on a much larger scale.
That "cyber bullying" has an audience of tens of thousands, and it features links for chat rooms about nearly 100 Southern California middle and high schools, particularly in the San Fernando Valley. As a result, parents and school administrators are calling for the site's closure, contending much of its content is libelous and harmful.
Parents in the Las Virgenes Unified School District began complaining about the site three months ago and recently met with administrators about its painful effect on youngsters. Principals ordered a block against the Web site on all campus computers.
One mother was shocked to find that her son, who attends high school in the Las Virgenes district, had been ridiculed on the site.
"These adolescents are pretty fragile. They are vulnerable," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used to avoid giving her child more public attention. "Kids said terrible things about him. It was just hurtful."
Her son now is receiving counseling because of his embarrassment, and she is organizing a coalition of parents to file a lawsuit against the Web site owners, she said.
"That kid who said that awful thing is just a stupid adolescent. But who is allowing him to do it? All of the adults."
Ken Tennen, an attorney in West Hills who represents the Web site owners, said schoolscandals.com is not violating the law and that those who are calling for the site to be shut down are trying to "silence free speech." He described the site as "the 21st century version of talk radio."
The Web site, he said, said is a nonprofit "opinion-based, student-run, student-operated bulletin board system."
He declined to identify the owners other than to say they are a group of Nevada investors, operating under the name Western Applications. They plan to expand the site nationwide over the next two months, he said.
"People really don't understand that a bulletin board system like schoolscandals.com exposes into the light of day the way that kids actually talk to each other, whether it is on the playground, in the locker room, on the sports field or hanging around the mall," Tennen said.
The Denver-based owners of a similar California-oriented site shut the site down two years ago after protests from parents and educators about its mean-spirited gossip. Tennen said his clients have no connection to that older site or similar ones around the country.
Schoolscandals.com has more than 31,400 registered users, according to one of its Web pages, and much of the electronic traffic comes from San Fernando Valley students, who attend Birmingham, Van Nuys, North Hollywood and El Camino Real high schools. It includes chat rooms for private and religious schools.
Many posts refer to students as "whores," "sluts" and "losers." Others include such comments as: she's an "anoerexic (sic) skank," "she's so ugly she looks like a horse, her breath smells like cheese" and "he's ugly and has a beer belly."
Jose Salas, 17, a senior at North Hollywood High School, said he visits the site "to see if there's any trash on anybody," but he doesn't believe all that he reads. Some of it is so ridiculous, it just takes common sense to realize it's false, he said.
Karla Rangel, 15, a sophomore at North Hollywood, said she signs on about 15 times a month. She said she posts protest responses, like when she defended her soccer team against Internet rumors that its members were all mean girls. She also has posted information about antiwar rallies or parties.
"It's a fun thing, except when people talk about you," she said. Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center, said thousands more such sites operate across the country. Although comments on the site may be cruel or unpleasant, he said posts about a student being "ugly" are not solid ground for legal action.
Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization, said that the authors of the postings might be held liable, but that a 1996 federal law protects many Internet service providers from lawsuits about their content. Only sites like Salon.com, latimes.com and others can be sued for defamation, since they hold the right to edit their content, she said.
The notion is that most Web hosts "don't look at all, because if you do look, you might be held liable for what your users are saying," she said.
But such gossipy Web sites inflict serious emotional damage to teenagers and even cause them to drop out of school, said Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Assn. of School Psychologists.
"It's a kind of cyber bullying, if you will," he said. "It's very cruel and insidious, and this has really created a nightmare for the students involved."
Feinberg said school administrators and counselors must try to discourage such Internet use and install blocking systems on their school computers. He also urged parents to monitor their children's Internet use.
Jim Nielsen, director of secondary education for Las Virgenes Unified, said the site is a major concern. "We're trying to create a safe and secure learning environment, and we want students to feel like they're not going to be harassed or abused in any way, so it's very disheartening to see some of the things people are saying about each other."
Two students recently left Agoura High and transferred to other schools, partly because of Internet-generated rumors, administrators of the Las Virgenes Unified School District said, but they declined to provide further details about the incidents.
Also in Las Virgenes Unified, nearly 100 students from Calabasas High School met with administrators last week to discuss concerns about the cyber rumor mill.
Brad Benioff, assistant principal at Agoura High, said schoolscandals.com rumors are different from gossip passed in hallways or scribbled on bathroom walls. "The anonymity of the Internet makes kids more bold in what they're saying. It's also much more public," he said.
But not all the postings are nasty.
Inside a Taft High School chat room onschoolscandals.com, someone defended one girl who was accused of dating four guys at once and called a "tramp." Then the protester wrote: "The people who sit here and talk smack [are] just jealous of her and what a good and sweet person she is. You really think this hurts her, when in fact it doesn't, it just annoys her. She can care less what [you] pathetic people think of her."