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Slur-Filled Teen Web Site Devastating for Some but Just Shy of Being Illegal

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By Donna St. George and Daniel deVise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Before the digital age, there was simply nasty writing on the restroom wall. Now, in the say-it-all era of the Internet, the darker side of teenage expression has found a new place to fester.

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It is a hive of anonymous slander where girls are listed by name as promiscuous and teachers are accused of being fat and in some instances of having sex with students. There are racial rants. Barbs about being gay. Last week, a teenager posted a rambling threat to kill students and staff members at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, which led to the arrest of a 17-year-old who had recently moved to Tennessee.

"It's vile," said Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin, who added that he is a firm believer in free speech but is vexed by the anonymity that the Web site, http://www.peoplesdirt.com, provides for maligning remarks against high schoolers who are named. "Some of these things are causing certain students great distress," he said.

That tension between free expression and mean-spirited assault appears to have hit a new high, especially in Montgomery County schools, which account for a majority of the Web site's postings. The site, which went up in November, is run by a 23-year-old administrator in Maryland and has already expanded into Virginia, the District and other states.

Parents have complained, and police have tried to rein in the site, which has been through several short-term shutdowns, but the material posted is not illegal, they say.

Unlike the world of graffiti in restroom stalls, the site's digital insults and accusations are more lasting, profuse and widely read, with the site claiming more than 3 million page views a day since the Whitman incident. Some students shrug off the crude remarks. But to others -- and their parents -- they can be alarming, humiliating or painful.

"This site takes all the mean-spirited and negative elements of Facebook and other sites that have a lot of positive aspects and puts them in one place," said Kathy Cowan of the National Association of School Psychologists, who has watched the site with concern. "It's like the sludge of Internet activity. There is nothing redeeming."

Alfredo Castillo, the site's administrator, said that he sees it as an important outlet for teenagers and that he and a fellow creator had asked, "Would it make sense, and is it right, is it wrong, morally?" They concluded that there was a need because "there is no avenue for people to express their feelings, their emotions and their secrets . . . anonymously."

As for teenagers hurt by malicious lies, he said: "We understand that a lot of it might be false. . . . We have to allow people who know these individuals to judge what is right [and] what is not."

Danielle Citron, an associate professor at University of Maryland Law School, said the Web site is unique for aiming at high school students. Similar sites have catered to college students and adults. "It's a manifestation of a trend that has been simmering," she said. But she added that the great worry is that a new generation might find it socially acceptable.

Rockville High School Principal Debra Munk said one student was so devastated by comments alleging that she was promiscuous that she did not want to return to the school. "There is no limit to what is said," Munk pointed out. "People can say it's free speech, but it's just very toxic for our kids and their culture."

Several students interviewed about the site asked not to be named to avoid further disparaging comments.


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