Outrage over cyber bullying

Cruel and insidious, cyber-bullying in the form of gossip is traumatising teenagers, report ERIKA HAYASAKI and JIA-RUI CHONG

WHEN Internet users log onto schoolscandals.com, and click on the Beverly Hills High School link, they will find a message calling one student a “retard'' who “deserves to go to hell.''  

Another posting in the Frost Middle School chat room describes a student as a “homosexual with a pigeon-like face and a penguin-like body.''  

Such name-calling and gossip about students are common on the three-year-old website, similar to the crude notes scribbled inside of school bathroom stalls for decades but on an much larger scale.  

That “cyber bullying'' has an audience of tens of thousands, and it features links for chat rooms from about nearly 100 Southern California middle and high schools, particularly in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. As a result, parents and school administrators now are calling for the site's closure, contending much of its content is libellous and harmful.  

For example, parents in the Las Virgenes Unified School District began complaining about the site three months ago and met with administrators about its painful effect on youngsters. Principals ordered a block against the website on all campus computers.  

One mother was shocked to find that her son, who attends high school in the Las Virgenes district, had been ridiculed on the website.  

“These adolescents are pretty fragile. They are vulnerable,'' said the mother, who asked that her name not be used to avoid giving her child more public attention. “Kids said terrible things about him. It was just hurtful.''  

Her son now is receiving psychological counselling because of his embarrassment and his mother is organising a coalition of parents to file a lawsuit against the website owners, she said.  

“That kid who said that awful thing is just a stupid adolescent. But who is allowing him to do it? All of the adults.''  

Ken Tennen, a Los Angeles attorney who represents the website owners, said schoolscandals.com is not violating the law and those who are calling for the site so be shut down are trying to “silence free speech.'' He described the site as “the 21st century version of talk radio.''  

The website, he said, is a nonprofit “opinion-based, student-run, student-operated bulletin board system.'' He declined to identify the owners other than to say they are a group of Nevada investors, operating under the name Western Applications. They plan to expand the site nationwide over the next two months, he said.  

“People really don't understand that a bulletin board system like schoolscandals.com exposes into the light of day, the way that kids actually talk to each other, whether it is on playground, in the locker room, on the sports field or hanging around the mall,'' Tennen said.  

The Denver-based owners of a similar California-oriented site, called schoolrumors.com, shut that down two years ago after protests from parents and educators about its mean-spirited gossip.  

Tennen said his clients have no connection to that older site or other similar ones around the country.  

Schoolscandals.com has more than 31,400 registered users, according to one of its Web pages, and much of the electronic traffic comes from San Fernando Valley students who attend public schools. The site includes chat rooms for private and religious schools.  

Karla Rangel, 15, a sophomore a North Hollywood High School, said she signs on to the site about 15 times a month. She said she posts protest responses, like when she defended her soccer team against Internet rumours that its members were all mean girls. She also has posted information about antiwar rallies or parties.  

“It's a fun thing, except when people talk about you,'' she said. “They say these things online because they're too much of a coward to say them in person.''  

Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center, said thousands more such sites operate across the country. While comments on the site may be cruel or unpleasant, he said a posting about a student being “ugly'' is not solid ground for legal action.  

Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organisation, said that the authors of the postings might be held liable, but that a 1996 federal law protects many Internet service providers from lawsuits about their content. Only sites they that hold the right to edit their content can be sued for defamation, she said.  

But such gossipy websites inflict serious emotional damage to teenagers and even cause them to drop out of school, said Dr Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists.  

“It's a kind of cyber bullying, if you will,'' he said. “It's very cruel and insidious, and this has really created a nightmare for the students involved.'' – LAT-WP 

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