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City targets Web to dull bullies’ barbs

Urgency rises after girl’s recent suicide

By James Vaznis and Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / April 2, 2010

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The calls began coming in Monday. A horrified guidance counselor, a teacher, and then a student lit up Boston’s new antibullying tip line, telling officials about multiple Facebook pages that featured pictures of female high school students with derogatory and sexually explicit captions beneath them.

Many of the Facebook pages accused female students of promiscuity. One, for example, showed a picture of a student in heels, smiling over her shoulder at the camera, with the caption “Walking STD!!!’’ Other captions were far worse.

Students and city and school officials say they have found at least 15 Facebook pages over the last few days that use obscene or hateful language to target female students, as well as a handful of male students, school administrators, and teachers at schools in Boston and surrounding communities. Many of the pages concerned students at Charlestown High School.

School and police officials say they consider the pages to be acts of cyberbullying, a form of harassment that parents and educational and law enforcement officials have become increasingly alarmed by after the suicides of two Western Massachusetts students who had been bullied.

Boston officials have been scrambling to have the pages removed and have been meeting to figure out how to address the apparent cyberbullying and find the culprits.

But as the offending Facebook pages come down, new ones go up. Ranny Bledsoe — principal of Charlestown High School, one of the most severely afflicted schools — said, “It seems to be an absolute epidemic.’’

Nearly 10 percent of the 900 students at Charlestown High have been victimized, Bledsoe said. Students targeted on the Facebook pages say they have been taunted and laughed at by classmates.

“It’s a very ugly modern crime,’’ Bledsoe said. “I don’t think students understand the implications of the powerful technology they are using.’’

Among the victims is Daychel Spruill, a 17-year-old Charlestown High senior who said she read derogatory remarks about herself on Sunday. Spruill said she called police, but was told they could not do anything and was instead advised to notify school officials. The next day, she said, she confided in her guidance counselor after enduring hours of whispers and teasing by other students.

“I broke down and started crying,’’ Spruill said. “I didn’t come to school the next day. I sat in bed all day long.’’

Boston and school police sent a letter to principals about the bullying issue yesterday, and school officials plan to send letters next week to parents to provide them with tips on determining whether their children are victims or instigators.

The schools are also recruiting cybermentors, students savvy at social media who will help others who believe they are being harassed on social networking sites.

City officials say they are moving to fight such websites in the aftermath of the Jan. 14 suicide of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley freshman whose death following months of torment from classmates sparked criminal charges and national outcry about how the school handled those accused of bullying the 15-year-old girl.

“It’s extremely dangerous when somebody is victimized like this,’’ said Michelle Urbano, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Health, part of the city’s Public Health Commission. “We certainly don’t want it to get anywhere near the point of South Hadley.’’

In February, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced the launch of a cyberbullying hot line, amid a spate of bullying episodes around the state, including at Dorchester’s McCormack Middle School.

Charlestown High students have been urging city and school officials to respond swiftly to the latest incidents. Jamila Hussein, 18, a senior, rushed to School Department headquarters immediately after class Wednesday to give a group of officials, who were discussing the issue, a first-hand account from a victim.

In an interview yesterday at the school, Hussein said that the derogatory remarks about her “made me feel so ashamed and embarrassed’’ and that she has become “paranoid’’ that the culprit might be passing her in the hallway or sitting with her in class.

“I wanted to write a 10-paragraph essay to defend myself,’’ said Hussein, who ultimately decided such a move might spur more harassment.

Clashes over the comments have led to one fight at the school.

Joel Foster, 19, a football player and one of the victims, said he worries that the cyberbullying will escalate. “It’s going to have to stop,’’ he said, “or someone is going to kill themselves.’’

School officials and police are struggling to identify the perpetrators, who have been using fake names when they register with Facebook to create the pages. Authorities visited the homes of victims and possible perpetrators Wednesday night.

Police say they could pursue criminal charges if they determine that perpetrators have violated victims’ civil rights.

“A lot of it is, unfortunately, free speech,’’ Boston police Superintendent Daniel Linskey said. “But depending on how far they push it, they can be criminally charged. . . . If they’re threatening and harassing, what starts out as what they think are juvenile pranks can go awry pretty quickly.’’

Schools could also discipline students for posting derogatory comments on Facebook pages.

A Facebook spokeswoman released a statement saying the company is looking into the Boston incidents.

“While only a small percentage of people will ever experience bullying on Facebook, we’re concerned about any abusive behavior,’’ the statement read. “We encourage those who notice bullying to immediately report it to us and to discuss it with parents, teachers, and others in the community who can help.’’

The Legislature will resume work next week on an anti-bullying bill the House and Senate passed last month. The two chambers must reconcile their differences on the measure before it goes to the governor.

The bill would give administrators more power to investigate and discipline students who bully.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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