Victor Scarpelli, principal at Kirkland's Finn Hill Junior High, wondered what was up when students said they'd talked to him the previous...

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Victor Scarpelli, principal at Kirkland’s Finn Hill Junior High, wondered what was up when students said they’d talked to him the previous night and knew he liked rap.

Turns out they’d communicated with him through his MySpace profile — three sites, in fact, claimed to be his. One page insisted, “No, I’m the real Mr. Scarpelli.”

Uh, no. While working with MySpace (which eventually took them all down), the principal went to every class last fall to inform students that “Mr. Scarpelli does not have a MySpace page, nor will he ever have a MySpace account.”

Anonymous students had created profiles with Scarpelli’s picture — copied from the school’s official Web site — and filled them with comments purportedly by and about him.

“It was weird to me,” he said, since students believed the false sites. “One was pretty creative, I have to admit.”

Faux sites — some benign, some malicious — are just one of the headaches that add up to a major migraine for school officials as they try to cut off bullying and harassment in what one expert dubs the online “Wild West,” while still respecting students’ free-speech rights.

A year after MySpace bloomed as the social networking site for teens — unique visitors to MySpace jumped 183 percent from July 2005 to this summer, according to Nielsen/NetRatings — many school administrators sound resigned to the site’s ubiquitous presence.

Resources

Student Bloggers’ Legal FAQ: www.eff.org/bloggers/lg/faq-students.php
Also offers guidelines on online defamation, privacy and blog safety.

Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying: www.cyberbully.org

MySpace Tips for Parents: www.myspace.com/safetytips. Includes a link for removing a child’s profile.

WiredSafety: www.wiredsafety.org/internet101/blogs.html

Book: “MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking,” Larry Magid and Anne Collier

MySpace registered its 100 millionth user in August; Hitwise, which measures Internet use, declared it the most popular site in the country.

Educational approach

Basically, the academic approach is: If you can’t beat it, educate it. Administrators emphasize the need for responsible use, while bracing for the next hot trend (video sharing on YouTube). The sites join instant and text messaging, chat rooms and blogs as potential online means of taunting, criticism and threats that used to be passed by note or whispered or scrawled on lockers.

Some school officials expect this year to be calmer, since students and parents are more informed about online risks.

“MySpace is part of teens’ social culture,” said Chip Kimball, deputy superintendent of the Lake Washington School District. “We don’t recommend that teens never use it. We just want to make sure they do it in a safe way.”

The Deleting Online Predators Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July, would require public schools and libraries to block commercial social-networking sites. Locally, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles plans to reintroduce her cyberbullying bill, which would add electronic acts to school-district harassment-prevention policies.

Most local districts do ban bullying — online or otherwise — and restrict access to networking sites from school computers. Seattle Public Schools, for example, asks secondary students to sign an Internet-use agreement that they will not transmit “harassing, defamatory or otherwise offensive material in any form.”

But that cyberspace line is easily crossed when students post comments from home about school or other kids.

Northshore School District suspended two high-school students last year because of MySpace postings, according to Susan Stoltzfus, director of communications. One made a threat against a school, which resulted in a preventative lockdown for the day. The other created a false site using a teacher’s identity.

Schools step in

MySpace now has a specific link for teachers to report imposter sites. The company also recently announced a new Internet safety campaign with guides for parents and school administrators.

In New Jersey, a state legislator plans to propose a bill making it illegal to knowingly post false information about another person on a Web site, according to The Record newspaper. The legislation was sparked by a faux profile with the real name and cellphone number of a 12-year-old girl — along with a fake photo and claim she was a stripper. In other cases, students created sites portraying educators or other students as racists, child molesters or pornographers.

“We’re not going to let a kid be harassed all weekend and called names so they’re afraid to come to school on Monday,” said Mike Anderson, principal of Skyview Junior High in Bothell. “If what a student does at home negatively impacts school, then we look at intervening.”

More issues crop up with middle-school or junior-high students; by high school, “there are fewer incidences but they tend to be more serious,” Kimball noted.

Depending on the posting’s severity, administrators may contact parents and the police.

Nearly one in 10 teens who use the Internet report being harassed online, according to a 2005 study of 1,500 teens published in this month’s Pediatrics. One in four harassed teens also experienced aggressive offline contact, such as someone calling or coming to their home.

Even with anonymous harassment, “we’ve been pretty successful at finding out who is doing it and working with law enforcement and parents to get it stopped,” said Cindy Lundvall, director of student services for Lake Washington. “It’s important for parents and students to know it can be traced.”

Parents sometimes want officials to step in more than they can legally. Public schools “have very fine lines to walk on what’s constitutionally protected,” said Anita Ramasastry, a University of Washington law professor.

Veering into libel

For public-school students who go online from home and don’t violate any laws (such as criminal threats), the First Amendment may offer protection, “as long as they do not ‘materially disrupt’ school activities,” Ramasastry wrote in a May column on FindLaw.com.

In separate cases in 2000, judges ruled that North Thurston (Olympia) and Kent school districts violated students’ First Amendment rights by punishing them for home Web sites.

However, students who veer from opinion (“Mr. B is a lousy teacher”) into untruthful, damaging statements (“Mr. B had an affair with a student”) could tread into libel.

With civil litigation, it’s possible “parents could be held financially responsible for the harmful online activities of their kids,” said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

Parents can’t rely on sites to monitor postings; the Communications Decency Act keeps Web-hosting companies immune from liability for third-party sites. By the same token, companies can take down offensive postings without free-speech concerns, explained Ramasastry, director of the UW’s Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology.

Administrators need to look at why students created sites — some may be retaliating at bullies themselves — and try to resolve the underlying issues, Willard said. While discipline may be appropriate, she said, the most important goals should be to “stop the harm, get online material removed and heal the interaction.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2091.