COVER- Cyberbullied: Fluco parent angered by school, police response
Threats on Facebook against a middle school student are testing how seriously officials take a pair of 2005 Virginia anti-bullying laws, and one Central Virginia mom says that school administrators and police have failed the test.
Stephanie Whindleton couldn't believe it when her 12-year-old daughter– whom she describes as an avid reader and church-goer–- received profanity- and racial-epithet-laden threats on Facebook from a classmate at Fluvanna Middle School. But what turned shock to anger, she says, was that a school administrator and the Fluvanna Sheriff's Office members told her there was nothing they could do about it.
The Facebook exchange that took place April 6 between Whindleton's daughter, Cameron White, and another seventh grader revolved, as so often happens at that age, around a boy. The language received, however, was crude, racist, and threatening:
"I WILL F*** YO BLACK A** UP !!!!!!"
"...WHEN CAMERON GET BACK TO SCHOOL SHE GOT IT COMIN!!!"
"WHTEVA B****!!! YUU JUSS NEED YO A*** BEAT N IMA DO IT 4YUU!"
Whindleton says she took a copy of the diatribe to the Sheriff's Office that evening–- and heard nothing further. The next week when spring break ended, she contacted the school's resource officer and assistant principal Amy Barnabei, who, according to Whindleton, said there was nothing that could be done because the incident didn't happen on school property.
Barnabei did not return a phone call from the Hook, but principal Kathi Driver did, and says she's not at liberty to comment.
"Any time there are threats made whether via the Internet or face to face, we take that very seriously," says principal Driver, who provides an excerpt from the Fluvanna Middle School Handbook. Under the section, "Unacceptable behavior and consequences," there's a mention of harassment and bullying, which can earn three days in-school suspension and notification of the sheriff's department. Really bad behavior could result in out-of-school suspension.
Handbook aside, Whindleton felt like her complaints were ignored.
"I had to control my flesh," says Whindleton, still angry more than a week later. "I'm a God-fearing woman, and I couldn't believe they were telling me there was nothing they could do."
She became even angrier when she contacted the Fluvanna Sheriff's Office.
"Lieutenant [David] Wells told me it would cost Fluvanna money to investigate to find out who it was," says Whindleton, who adds that the identity of the perpetrator was never in question.
"He didn't think I wanted to pursue criminal charges. I said, 'Yes I do.'" According to Whindleton, Wells told her nothing could be done.
"I was livid," recalls Whindleton. "I was completely livid."
"There are different codes that can apply," says Wells. "Sometimes people don't hear everything I say. Without going into specifics, what I said might have been taken out of context."
Frustrated after talking to Wells, Whindleton called Fluvanna Commonwealth's Attorney Jeff Haislip. Only then, she says, did her concerns result in action. A juvenile intake officer told her that the seventh grader who threatened her daughter would be in juvenile court May 5 to face a charge of making electronic threats.
Due to the secrecy surrounding juvenile proceedings, Haislip says he's unable to confirm that, but he explains that in general, a juvenile intake officer acts like a magistrate, and has a number of ways of handling juvenile cases besides ending up in court, including finding no probable cause or having those involved attend an intake hearing. "Because of the goal of rehabilitation, a juvenile probation officer has a great deal of discretion," he says.
"If not for Jeff Haislip, nothing would have been done," maintains Whindleton.
Haislip acknowledges that while there are no state laws specifically labeled cyberbullying, he says in most cases, making a threat is a crime. "If you do anything electronically that makes the person feel threatened," says Haislip, "that could be a felony."
The regional semifinal was a must-win basketball game for Western Albemarle High School against visiting Winchester's Handley High. And someone wanted the Western Warriors to win so badly that they threatened three of Handley's varsity players on Facebook, moving on to text messages and even voice mails.
"What really concerned me was how vulgar it was," says Handley Coach Tom Dixon, citing "Kiss my a**" as one of the lesser examples.
"It upset the kids; it upset the coaches," says Dixon. "We've never dealt with this before, and it was a shock. When they started making comments about what they were going to do, they went too far."
Dixon says the threats, while not specific, were unnerving. So when the Handley team arrived in Crozet for the February 25 game, he notified Western administrators and coaches, who looked at the emails and then went into the training room to inquire about the messages. He says he was told six or seven students were involved.
Later, Dixon says he received a couple of letters of apology from students– and one from a parent. And he compliments Western's handling of the incident
Yet there were other aspects of the game– besides the fact that no one from Handley wanted to even go to the bathroom by themselves– that Dixon hadn't seen before. For example, jeers from a whole section of Warrior fans called out specific names of Handley players.
And the visiting player who got the most threats, Jeremiah Wilson, recently received a scholarship to play football at the University of Maryland.
"Here's a kid," says Dixon, "who has to worry about something besides basketball. What if some nut comes out of the stands?"
Western athletic director Steve Neon and principal Dave Francis did not return phone calls from the Hook, and Albemarle schools spokeswoman Maury Brown says no criminal charges were filed.
"If a student feels threatened or students behave in unsportsmanlike fashion, we investigate and take appropriate action," says Brown. And that can include involving law enforcement.
"Sometimes people take their sports very seriously," she continues. "Unsportsmanlike conduct is not tolerated at Western or at any of our schools. If trash talking crosses the line, it can get into criminal activities, and students need to know that."
Dixon concedes he's seen crazed fan behavior at home.
"We've had kids escorted out of Handley," he says. "We've had racial slurs from our kids made at opposing teams. We've taken kids out of games and told them they couldn't come back to games."
He chalks up some of the bad behavior to kids imitating Duke University's so-called Cameron Crazies that they've seen on TV. But the threats leave him scratching his head.
"Some of them said they were just trying to have fun, trying to gain an advantage," says the Handley coach. "It may be fun for some, but it's not for others."
He see this as a trend that needs to halt before it gets even more disturbing.
"There's a lot of threats being made to people in government," says Dixon. "They don't like a decision, so they make threats."
Five years ago, there wasn't anything on the books to let parents know about kid cruelty–- or assault–- that took place at school, as one family with a child at the same school as Whindleton discovered.
"My son was covered in bruises, and the school said it's horseplay," says the mother, who asks that her name not be used because, "My son has been through absolute hell."
That family no longer lives in Fluvanna, and the mother says she sees a marked difference in attitudes between there and Northern Virginia, where bullying, even in jest, is treated with zero tolerance.
"Moving was the best thing that happened in a long time," says the still-traumatized parent. "You don't realize how bad it is until you're out."
Before they left Central Virginia, however, this family told their story to Delegate Rob Bell, who carried two bills to the General Assembly. Bell's bills, now law, require schools to have character education, including a code of conduct, to notify parents if their child is assaulted on school property, and provide civil immunity to school employees who report bullying. In 2009, the character education law was amended to add electronic devices to the outlawed methods of bullying, harassing, or intimidating, says Bell.
"Cyberbullying is a little harder to address," says Bell. "It's easier to identify a kid punching another in the nose. And the online harassment often takes place off school grounds. How do you address off-grounds behavior at school?"
But should vulgar name-calling on Facebook– particularly when perpetrated by a mouthy pre-adolescent– really warrant a criminal charge?
"That's always the question, whether we should be legislating that," says Bell. And that's why he believes character education is perhaps the more crucial piece of his legislation, requiring school divisions to put anti-bullying in handbooks where both students and parents can see the guidelines.
"We want to change the social pressures at school to make bullying uncool," says Bell. "You have a small population who bully. There's a small population likely to be bullied. And there's a big group in the middle who egg them on– or who turn it around."
Bell recommends reading Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, the book that inspired the comedic Lindsay Lohan film Mean Girls. He calls it a "shockingly serious book."
Dewey Cornell is the school violence expert at UVA and says middle schoolers are at a peak time for bullying. "Their capacity to say hurtful things exceeds their judgment," he says.
In cases where people are seriously injured, there should be legal consequences, he says. Otherwise, he suggests cyberbullying be handled like other issues at school, with education, discipline, and counseling rather than criminal charges. That's why considers threat assessment crucial.
"We want to be careful not to criminalize student behavior, but we have to recognize it can merit serious consequences," he says. "It helps schools avoid over-reacting or under-reacting."
Despite the state legislation, bullying is still common, says Cornell, mentioning a January case in the Shenandoah Valley that resulted in Adam Casey, 17, getting severely beaten and suffering a broken nose and fractured eye socket.
His alleged attacker, Jamar Coleman, 18, was said to have been bullying Casey for two years before the assault at Fort Defiance High School, and Casey's mother, Janessa Manning, told the Staunton News Leader that she'd lodged between 20 and 25 complaints with the school's principal.
Two days before Casey was knocked unconscious, the News Leader reports, Coleman wrote on his Facebook, "Yo Adam Kasey u Keep talkn [expletive] im drop u ya feel me."
Coleman was charged with felonious assault and expelled.
On April 28, folk singer Peter Yarrow (of the 1960s trio Peter, Paul & Mary) told his Charlottesville audience that every day 160,000 students skip school over fears of personal violence.
Beyond the physical scars and absences, bullying can lead to even graver situations, such as the well-publicized January 14 suicide of a bullied Massachusetts teen, Phoebe Prince.
Although nine students have been charged in that incident, cyberbullying continues, and an April 28 report on NBC's Today show featured cases of graphic and disturbing anonymous postings in Houston and in Evanston, Illinois, that one expert calls a "horrific epidemic."
On a reporter's recent visit to Fluvanna Middle School, the result of Bell's character education bill is very much in evidence (although Superintendent Tom Smith refused the Hook permission to take photographs during school hours.)
Rob Silverman is the man in charge of character development there, and he shows a reporter around a facility plastered with warnings like the one designating a main hallway a "no bully zone."
Fluvanna calls its anti-bullying program Project Impact, based on a widely used program developed in Norway, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. From grades K-8, Fluvanna students are given weekly lessons that use role-playing and anecdotal situations.
Silverman shows a large binder that teachers are given about bullying and how to intervene.
Students and parents are warned of the legal consequences of cyberbullying, as well as other youthful indiscretions, like sexting, that can come back to haunt.
"We don't just focus on bullying," says Silverman. "We deal with the whole gamut of behavior."
And when something happens, "We have procedures," says Silverman. "We're not just making it up as we go along."
Teachers, guidance counselors, and school bus drivers are instructed in prevention and are among those notified if bullying occurs. "The more people we have aware, the more likely we are to make the child feel safe," says principal Driver.
Cyberbullying is very difficult for school administrators, says Driver. Not only does it occur off school grounds, but the students can be joking, or borrowing someone else's account. "We don't have any right to go into a Facebook account," says Driver. "That's why we contact the school resource officer."
Fluvanna's Lieutenant Wells points to two statutes in the Code of Virginia: 18.2-157.7:1 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use a computer to harass. Using a computer to threaten death or bodily harm is a Class 6 felony under 18.2-60, and that's the code under which Western Albemarle student Patrick Crider was charged earlier this year when he allegedly threatened on Facebook to kill classmates.
"It depends on whether there's a threat of bodily harm," says Wells, and whether a reasonable person would be in fear.
He concedes that cyberbullying presents an enforcement dilemma: the difficulty of proving who is actually using the computer to make the threat.
There are other options besides court, says Wells, including the school resource officer– an option Whindleton says didn't help–- and talking to the alleged perpetrator and to parents informally.
"We take everything seriously these days," says Wells. "We can't afford not to."
Whindleton stands by her story that both school and police told her nothing could be done, and that until she talked to Haislip, no one acknowledged legal options.
In cases of cyberbullying, school officials Silverman and Driver recommend that any student victim log off whenever a conversation starts to get uncomfortable. Having the computer in a central room in the house is another way to keep parents involved, although cyberbullying can take place even in the middle of the home with parents present, says Commonwealth's Attorney Haislip.
He advises parents to contact the school, the sheriff's office, or the commonwealth's attorney if threats of bodily harm occur. He says still likes to look at bullying on a case-by-case basis, and acknowledges that youths could be "puffing" and full of hot air in their threats.
"If we did nothing else but prosecute 14-year-olds who say they're going to kick butts on Facebook," notes Haislip, "we'd have to have a special day in court."
Whindleton is still shaken by the online vitriol directed toward her daughter, and she thinks the threat-spewing tween should be charged with a hate crime because, she says, the girl had directed racial slurs toward another African-American girl the day before.
Since school officials were alerted, the alleged threatener is not allowed around Cameron. Both had to sign a "no contact" contract, something Whindleton believes penalizes a child "who didn't do anything."
But perhaps some of the anti-bullying instruction is evident in Cameron's responses to her tormenter. "[D]ont call me that i hve a name [sic]," she writes after being called the b-word, and she asks what she'd done.
"NUTN I JUSS DNT LIKE YO UGLY N***** A**!!!!" comes the response.
Cameron again asks why the other girl is being so mean, and to please stop cyberbullying her, tactics she says she learned from Fluvanna Middle's Silverman.
Whindleton describes her daughter as well-rounded and caring, an active kid in the midst of softball season, playing everything but catcher on three different teams. But even two weeks after the Facebook exchange, an otherwise sunny Cameron says, "It made me feel horrible to know someone would say something like that."
The bullying prevention program at Fluvanna Middle School is losing funding because of local budget constraints, but principal Kathi Driver pledges that the school is not discontinuing the program.
"I truly look at the school as family, says Driver, "and I look at our obligation to protect those children. If they're worried about safety, they're not learning."