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.
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.
At Clarksburg High School, which accounts for more postings than any other school in the county, an 11th-grader was named as a "pothead," which he said "is funny to me because I honestly don't smoke pot," and his girlfriend was berated for dating him. Friends posted comments in his defense. Still, it "didn't cause me any trouble or make me mad," he said, "because I'm in high school, and high schoolers talk behind people's backs all the time."
Some of the discussion threads are more innocuous, and a 10th-grader at Yorktown High School in Arlington County, who was tagged a "hot guy," deems the site "kind of stupid, because it might [upset] people . . . or hurt someone, but drama is, like, the biggest thing you can't escape in high school."
Jacque Barlow, mother of a Whitman sophomore disparaged twice on the site, said her son let her know, "You don't want to look at it." But Barlow looked anyway and was stunned, both by the outrageous comments and the use of names. "It upsets me greatly that his name is on there anywhere -- good, bad or otherwise."
The Montgomery school system has blocked the site in its schools.
Castillo said his Web site, which has some advertising, might one day prevent a school shooting or other violent episode by allowing expression that would otherwise get bottled up. "The site could come to save people in the future," he said.
But those caught in the cross hairs see it differently.
One Montgomery teenager said he first heard of the Web site when someone told him that he was the subject of a sexually explicit comment. The teen was horrified to read what had been written -- and then said he discovered that other students assumed it was true. "It made me an outcast," he said.
The Web site was thrust into the public eye with the death threat at Whitman. It led to the arrest of the former student, who was recalled as "a good kid," not violent, by some at Whitman.
His post to the Web site, however, invoked the 1999 school shootings at Columbine, and in the abbreviated language of text messages, he talked about his life being over and how he would "take a couple people i hate out wit me." He asked others to vote on "Who Would You Like To See Die" from a list of students and school employees.
One student targeted on the list was the 12th-grade son of Marc Bennis, a father of three in Bethesda. At first, Bennis recalled, his family was stunned. But his son had been a friend of the teenager, so it was confusing, too. "It was wrong what he did, for sure," Bennis said. "It was wrong, 100 percent. But it's so sad."
The student has been charged with commission of acts of terrorism.
Bennis added: "I don't know why he did it."
After the threat became public, the Web site featured links to news stories under the headline, "Peoplesdirt Helps Prevent Shooting."
Castillo said the Web site cooperated with police and provided the Internet Protocol address of the teenager who posted the threat. "At the end of the day, we want to sleep easy at night," he said.
He said the Whitman threat has not been removed from the site because no one has asked him to do so.
The Web site has been involved in other less-publicized controversies. It was shut down voluntarily just before Christmas because a topless photo of a minor was posted. It was shut down again in March after parents troubled by posted allegations questioned the legality of the site. Montgomery Police Detective John Reinikka investigated for illegal activity and found none.
"It's so frustrating," Reinikka said. "The parents are upset. The kids are upset. There's nothing positive about the site at all. Young girls are coming home crying."