Schoolyard Face-Offs Blamed on Facebook Taunts

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Twice this month, students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda have used their fists to settle disputes that arose on Facebook.

So Alan Goodwin, the principal, took the unusual step of asking parents to monitor their children's postings on the social networking site. He did this in a posting to the school's e-mail list, which is a forum as addictive to some Whitman parents as Facebook has become to their children.

"I am becoming increasingly frustrated by negative incidents at school that arise from students harassing other students on Facebook," Goodwin wrote April 18.

Teens are conducting an increasing share of their social lives electronically, via text-messaging, e-mail and social networking sites such as Facebook. Threats, harassment and bullying have followed them online. Although such behavior is not new, research suggests that it is expanding rapidly, and educators and lawmakers seem resolved to pay closer attention to the words students exchange online while off campus.

Over the winter, a freshman at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring became the target of a Facebook group devoted to enumerating the reasons why other students hated him.

Recently, a sophomore at Whitman referenced a sex act between two girls next to the photograph of a freshman she wanted to provoke. "I think it went back and forth online for about a day," said the victim's older sister, who requested anonymity to avoid further harassment. "On day two, the girl said, 'Let's do this in person.' "

That Friday, they fought.

The other fight at Whitman -- a school better known for superior SAT scores -- was also typical schoolyard fare, students said, prompted when a male student boasted on Facebook that he could beat up a larger classmate.

Educators, long accustomed to ignoring fights when they happen off campus, are being forced to reconsider.

"Kids communicate, good, bad or indifferently, over Facebook a lot," said Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education who has a daughter at Whitman. "Until an actual incident arises at school, it's below our radar screen."

Goodwin, discussing the incidents by e-mail, said that what struck him about the fights was that the students involved "had not been involved in such things before and we could have prevented [the fights], I think, if we had known."

It might be the first case in the Washington region of school officials publicly linking a fight to words exchanged on Facebook. Rival MySpace, which many students regard as more juvenile, has been linked by authorities to gang posturing and fights. In 2006, the principal of Annapolis High School identified MySpace as the possible source of a conflict that culminated in a series of fights on campus and a shootout at a suburban mall.

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