Janay Futrell, guidance counselor for Trigg County High School, said that when she first caught wind of what was happening in December, there were at least 427 threads, or topics, on the Topix Cadiz page, and at least half of those were the kind of slanderous, abusive or threatening posts about other students.
Futrell and James Mangels, assistant superintendent of personnel and operations for Trigg County Schools, both said that such posts “blew up” as soon as students could start accessing Topix from their smartphones, like Apple iPhones.
“That’s where the kids have really taken advantage of that, not actually having to sit at a computer,” Futrell said. “It’s just been awful. I know there’s a better word, but it has been very disturbing to see the language and the personal attacks that have been made on students, and now adults. Some adults have been targeted.”
Futrell added that Topix and social networking sites were already blocked on school computers.
School policy and the school’s code of conduct both state that although a student can bring telecommunications devices like cell phones to school, they have to be turned off and out of sight during school hours, or 30 minutes before class and 30 minutes after school is dismissed, unless there is an emergency.
Mangels said the problems died down somewhat over Christmas break but picked right back up after school started back. Futrell said that although most of the offending posts were about high school students, some went after middle school students as well.
“Right after Christmas break, we had several parents and students complaining about bullying and slanderous comments and some really inappropriate and tasteless things that were put out there,” Mangels said.
Mangels also noted that they have been dealing with cyber bullying via social networking sites like Facebook for a while, but it has not been as bad as it has been for the past couple of months.
“The real slanderous things came from Topix,” Mangels said. “With Facebook and Myspace, you have to create a user profile, and there’s a lot of information that you have to put in. With this, you can just post anonymously.”
The bullying and the defaming comments made on Topix disrupt the educational process, as they are creating conflict between the students, and it caused this disruption for several days, said Mangels, who called such online comments “an electronic version of a slambook.”
Cadiz Police Chief Hollis Alexander said Futrell “got the ball rolling” on the issue. Futrell said Alexander talked with the state Attorney General’s Office, which showed them how to report offending posts, and that information was forwarded to the school, the students and their parents.
“They were very understanding of the situation, they worked with us,” said Mangels. “They let us be aware … that with any kind of self-harm or any kind of threat, they immediately try to work with us or with law enforcement.”
Site administrators will only report user Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to law enforcement, only if a post makes a threat or talks about self-harm, and only with a valid court order, Futrell said,
“Some of those comments have been taken off the site now because they were really not criminal in nature, but they were hateful comments, snide comments, about people,” Alexander said.
Trigg County Sheriff Ray Burnam also said that the comments that have been reported, while very offensive, have so far fallen under the First Amendment. He added that the sheriff’s department will go after those making threatening remarks “to the fullest extent of the law.”
Burnam also said that individuals who have been defamed on the site can sue those responsible for the libelous comments posted
Futrell, Mangels, Burnam and Alexander all said that Topix has been cooperative in removing the offending posts. Alexander said it might even be possible to find out who makes those comments, provided said comments are severe enough.
There was a conference call between a site administrator for Topix and school administrators like Mangels and Futrell, and during that call they explained some of the problems happening at the school because of the comments, Mangels said.
Futrell said she reported quite a few abusive posts herself, reports that the site administrator saw, after which he called and set up the conference call. She also said the administrator, who asked to remain anonymous, deleted more than just the posts they had reported.
Mangels and Futrell say they encourage parents to monitor their children’s cell phones and their Internet activities. Futrell said she encourages students not to respond to such online comments.
A banner at the top of the Cadiz page on Topix reads, “Cyber-bullying is a crime in Kentucky. By posting on this site, your identifying information might be shared with law enforcement agencies should they provide a valid court order. Please think twice before posting. Don’t be stupid.”
Mangels said that online, or cyber, bullying “has a larger disruption” than offline bullying, as comments can be posted anonymously, and students can hide behind that anonymity and say things they wouldn’t say otherwise. They can even portray themselves as someone else, he added.
“They don’t understand the repercussions that could come about by hitting that send button,” Mangels said.
Additionally, there generally aren’t witnesses to cyber bullying, whereas with offline bullying, threats or intimidation, it’s more likely that someone else, such as a teacher or another student, is around to see and hear it, said Mangels.
Kentucky has laws against both offline bullying and cyber bullying, all three of which were passed in 2008. It is a Class B misdemeanor. It has become a nationwide issue over the past few years with the rise of social networking sites.
The topix.com site administrator in question could not be reached for comment.