Tuesday, November 08, 2011

TOP STORY >> Cabot dealing with cyberbullying

Leader staff writer

Derogatory comments and threats posted last weekend about Cabot students on a free Internet discussion website forced parents, police and school administrators to get involved to find the people behind what they consider cyberbullying.

The Cabot Police Department, the State Police and the Cabot School District are working together to investigate cyberbullying that is continuing to occur under the Cabot forum on the website Topix.com.

The posts and comments spread like wildfire, once some posts are deleted, new ones appear.

The messages are posted by people using anonymous or false names. More than 3,000 individual topics have been posted on the Cabot message board.

Lt. Scott Steely said the police department received about 50 complaints on Monday from parents about comments that began to be posted Friday night. By Monday, more than 200 individual names had appeared with comments posted ranging from one to 104 comments.

Authorities are trying to identify the Internet Protocol addresses of the hostile messages to determine who is posting the comments.

An IP address is a unique set of numbers that every computer connected to the Internet has.

Cabot police are also looking at unique identifying numbers from smart phone users who post on the website.

Police plan to file criminal charges against the cyberbullies. Cyberbullying is a class B misdemeanor with a punishment up to 90 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.

“Using a computer to harass or annoy is illegal,” Steely said.

Some of the comments were positive, but some were threatening and harassing. Several of the posts were crass and hateful regarding a student’s sexual orientation, preference or history. Others refer to the girls named on the post with demeaning language. Steely believes most of the people leaving the messages are teens.

Even though a majority of the comments were posted after school hours and off school property, the district is taking a stand. On Monday afternoon before school was dismissed, students were informed about the cyberbullying.

The Cabot Public School handbook states, “Electronic acts of bullying are prohibited whether or not the electronic act originated on school property or with school equipment, if the electronic act is directed specifically at students or school personnel and is maliciously intended for the purpose of disrupting school or has a high likelihood of succeeding in that purpose.”

According to the handbook, bullying is defined as pointed comments or questions intended to embarrass or humiliate others.

The heartless comments directed at specifically named students has Superintendent Dr. Tony Thurman fired up.

“It is mean, cruel and it’s not acceptable behavior. No student should have to deal with the posted messages on a national website. We’re not going to tolerate it. We will punish the students accordingly. We mean business,” Thurman said.

The handbook lists the punishments for cyberbullying, ranging from a conference with a student to expulsion.

He said some people regard posting degrading messages as entertainment. They can leave comments with aliases and fake e-mail accounts without being held accountable.

The posted messages caused disruptions at the high school and both junior high schools. Students are asking questions. Parents are calling school administrators.

Thurman said students who did not know about the website will want to know about it now.

“All the kids are talking about it. It’s a lot of unnecessary drama,” Thurman said of the disruption.

According to Cabot police, Topix will not remove the comments at the request of law enforcement, only with requests from parents and the child involved.

“I had to give them more personal information to get Topix to flag (review) the comments than to post a comment,” Thurman said.

He said the website informed him it would take up to three business days to review comments.

The website is not censoring or preventing new messages from being posted, he explained.

Topix did put a banner message on the forum for posters to think about their messages. Cyberbullying is a crime in Arkansas. Identifying information may be shared with authorities if they provide a court order.

Thurman recommended parents have a discussion with their children about the posts.

“There is nothing more important than for families to be able to discuss these issues together,” Thurman said.

“Parents need to notify the building administrator if these continue. We also need information on who they think may be posting the inappropriate comments. Our counselors are prepared to help students who are dealing with these postings as well,” Thurman added.

The police department is asking parents of the children involved to contact Steely at 501-843-6166 or e-mail ssteely@cabotar.gov about cyberbullying complaints.