Is Facebook protecting bullies?

The new world of online cruelty.
April 1 2010 6:28 PM

Is Facebook Protecting Bullies?

The DA in the Phoebe Prince suicide case seems to think so. Is she right?

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullying. See Emily Bazelon's special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

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If police and prosecutors can't get the online content at issue for building a case against the teenagers accused of criminally harassing and stalking Phoebe Prince without a search warrant, that means school officials and parents can't get it either. Once posts that had been public have been deleted, they're not easy to recover. This is one of the lessons that Mike Donlin, who works on technology and violence prevention for the Seattle school district, tries to impress upon everyone he talks to about cyberbullying—kids, parents, teachers, administrators. "When you see something ugly online, you don't want to keep it. But don't just hit delete" he says. "Save the URL, make a screen shot, print it out. Stick it in a folder if you don't want to look at it. When it comes up again you have something tangible to show." You have evidence, in other words, of the abusive behavior should you need it later.

It's a simple point, Donlin says, but in the moment of surprise or consternation over nasty content, kids, parents, and teachers often don't think to save what they're looking at. One mother who e-mailed me from Canada, however, had the presence of mind to do just that. She friended one of her daughter's friends on Facebook, which allowed her to follow along as a group of girls (and eventually boys) ganged up on another girl, for defending a friend whom the group had mocked because she'd lied about her health. (If it sounds convoluted, that's because it's middle school.) The mother sent me all 255 posts, written in staccato bursts in the afternoons after school over four days. The whole thing is an awful read, peppered with IM-speak (LMFAOOOOOO!!) and lines like "No threats cause ill get in shit ... but i REALLY wouldn't say that if i were you ... which im not cause im not FAT ... but i wouldnt say that ... ASK YOUR FRIENDS BITCH.! They learned lessons." The girl who was the group's target went from standing up to them in her early replies to groveling for forgiveness. And at the end, the ringleader wrote, Yoo. !! Delete ALLLLL comments that you posted guys … .. I don't want any friends getting in shit."

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At that point, the mother who was watching this unfold printed out the exchange and brought it to the principal at her daughter's school, St. Patrick's Intermediate School in Ottawa. When I called the principal, William Walsh, he didn't call me back but sent an e-mail describing the episode as a "minor incident" and saying that "All the students, staff, and parents involved were satisfied and dealt with at the time in a professional and confidential manner." The mother who sent me the posts, not surprisingly, disagrees. She wasn't satisfied by the minimal punishment she says the school doled out—six girls were suspended for three days. And more than that, she said the principal never showed the exchange to the parents of the girls involved. "I don't understand that," she said. "Parents can't fix the problem if they don't know what their children are doing."


What did the parents of the teenagers accused of harassing Phoebe Prince know about the three months of bullying that the district attorney says took place? That's a question, like the one about which adults at the school knew what was happening, that the town of South Hadley is just beginning to address. They may have had no idea what their kids were doing on Facebook and Craigslist. It's probably a good thing, legally speaking, that social network sites won't turn over the teenagers' postings without a search warrant. But that doesn't mean parents, and kids who are bystanders, can't track it themselves.

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