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.

Alex Sopko, a senior at Whitman, said many of her friends spend more than an hour a day on Facebook.

"I wouldn't say people spend more time on Facebook than talking in person," said Sopko, 17. "But if I had a choice between calling someone or instant-messaging or writing them on Facebook, I'd probably choose Facebook."

Caustic comments, once passed around class as folded notes, are now immortalized on semi-public Web pages, where they can be viewed by thousands. Students are called fat, their sexuality is questioned and their fashion choices critiqued, often in language not fit to print in a family newspaper.

Rebecca Kahlenberg, mother of two Whitman students, said the principal's post served as a valuable piece of intelligence from school officials who, by her reckoning, know more than most parents do about the social habits of their children.

"I don't think it would occur to a parent to ask, 'Was there any bullying on Facebook today?' " said Kahlenberg, author of a new book called " 'Like, Whatever': The Insider's Guide to Raising Teens."

Kahlenberg said Goodwin's note prompted her to ask her daughters if they had been bullied on Facebook.

"But I don't think you need to see all the postings and everything," she said. "Just like once they have their license, you don't drive with them every time. There's a certain element of trust."

Researchers have assembled a fairly clear portrait of cyber-bullying. In a recent survey of middle-school students, 18 percent of respondents said they had been bullied online at least once in the previous two months. Girls were victimized twice as often as boys. Half the time, victims didn't know the identities of their bullies.

"Your traditional bullying is still more prevalent than cyber-bullying, but not for long," said Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University and co-author of the report. "Because this is the medium through which they are communicating now, it's not surprising that this would be the venue through which they would bully each other."

A new Maryland law adds cyber-bullying to the legal definition of bullying in the state and requires school boards to write anti-bullying policies by July 2009. The law was spurred by the case of a student from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac who was tormented by classmates, both in person and on MySpace, when she came out as a lesbian.

"My concern was that situations like this would continue to arise," said Del. Craig L. Rice (D-Montgomery), who introduced the legislation.

The father of another victim of cyber-bullying told lawmakers he found school officials to be "largely uneducated" about the extent of student participation in social networking sites and reluctant to intervene in his son's case.

The boy, a freshman at Sherwood High School, became the subject last winter of a Facebook hate group. The postings, mostly from a pair of cyber-bullies from Sherwood and Churchill high schools, grew increasingly violent and anti-Semitic. The victim, who was not allowed to use Facebook, learned of the postings through friends.

According to the father, who requested anonymity, administrators at Sherwood High cooperated fully, but officials at Churchill were "absolutely dismissive" and did not consider the problem to be the school's business. The Facebook group has since been shut down.

State education officials questioned the reach of the new legislation because it asks school officials to police student conduct outside school.

But an assistant Maryland attorney general advised Rice that it was permissible to require school-system policies to address cyber-bullying "if the effects are manifested on school grounds."

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