Confrontations between students occurred face-to-face or through written notes and prank telephone calls two decades ago. Today, however, the harassment and bullying of peers occurs electronically, whether it be through instant messages delivered via MSN Messenger, Facebook, MySpace or text messages sent from cell phones.
"Wow. (Name withheld) is gay..." is the Facebook entry dated Dec. 6, 2008 that started one of the latest Spencer High School (SHS) investigations of possible harassment.
Some people didn't get the joke.
While no actual threats had been posted on the group, several portions of it may be construed as a definite defamation of character.
Late last week, the Facebook group allegedly targeting the SHS sophomore tallied 92 "members." The number had diminished to 83 by yesterday afternoon. In addition to SHS students and recent graduates, teenagers from Sheldon, Clay Central-Everly, Emmetsburg and Martensdale, as well as from Bertrand, Neb. had logged onto the social networking Internet site. Access to it reached global status when a foreign exchange student from Germany posted comments on it.
While some readers have reported the group to see its existence -- or at least comments in it -- eliminated, others have attempted to alleviate the perceived situation by reprimanding their peers.
A local teenager posted, "Grow up. This is pathetic. You have nothing better to do than to make fun of someone? That's so inconsiderate."
Another added to the growing text, "I'm not trying to start (expletive deleted). Obviously, Columbine and Virginia Tech. didn't teach you anything. You guys are so mean."
An attempt to address the situation came in the form of an e-mail sent by Rev. Dan Mayes of First Christian Church and Rev. Wendy Van Tassell of First Congregational Church to people involved with the Spencer Community Youth Ministries group.
"The intent was for other youth ministers or youth workers to be able to be informed about the situation and to be able to know if the kids in their churches are participating in this, so that they can have the opportunity to talk with the kids in their churches about the impacts and effects of this kind of stuff," Mayes explained. "Another intent of that e-mail was that cyber-bullying has a tendency to be something that kids don't talk about to their parents and can often have devastating effects: People commit suicide and people commit homicide over things like this. We don't want either one of those situations to happen in this community."
He continued, "People here think that stuff like this doesn't happen in small-town Iowa. But it does. Parents here need to understand that their kids are vulnerable to online threats and that if they're not careful their kids can get caught up in perpetuating that stuff, too. Parents should recognize that computer use for teens should be a privilege and that if they're going to allow their kids on MySpace or Facebook, they need to watch what their kids are doing and keep a close eye -- not a distant eye. And, people of faith especially should have an eye on what their kids are doing online, because what their kids are participating in speaks volumes about their faith or lack thereof."
Spencer school officials are also aware of the group. When it was mentioned during last Thursday night's Spencer school board meeting, Superintendent Greg Ebeling assured board members that school administrators were aware of it and dealing with it.
SHS Assistant Principal Jade Beehler acknowledged he'd received an e-mail last week notifying him of the group. SHS Guidance Counselor Eileen Gengler, already aware of it, was busy investigating and talking with students involved in it.
"Although the Web site was not a product of Spencer High School, it did involve Spencer High School kids," Beehler said. " ... Since it wasn't at a disciplinary point at that time, she was dealing with the kids on that."
He continued, "If it starts or happens in the school -- somebody doing Facebook or sending text messages -- obviously (there will be) an investigation if there's harassment there. If it happens outside of school, we notify the police. We also look at information as far as the safety of the kid, are they threatening them when they come to school, are they (harassing) during school time, are they following up during school time with what they started at home or somewhere else. Then, obviously, disciplinary measures at the school can be enforced -- and are."
Discipline at the school level can range from mediation hearings and conflict resolution sessions with students to suspensions or parental notification.
Beehler indicated several Spencer Police Department officials were also alerted to the online postings.
"A lot of times, the students reinforce that this is a form of harassment or bullying. And, most of the time once you make the students aware of that, they will either stop or the wording will change or they will be a reader of a Web site but they won't be a participant -- especially when they know that people are watching," SHS Guidance Counselor Gengler said. "I think that's the key here: If people can watch to see what is being written, and parents can take a look to see when their child is on the computer or cell phone or any of those electronic devices, for it to be supervised (in regard to) what they're doing, who they are visiting with and what they're saying. Because I do know that some people are very, very surprised when they are shown what their child has written."
"Spencer school," she continued, "is definitely not ho-humming and letting it go by. I talked to a lot of our students. But, you have to think of this too: We have students who saw the Web site, got on it and said, 'Knock it off. You're being mean. You're being rude. What are you doing? That's not how you behave.' So, we really have some very good students who are standing up and doing the right thing."
The mother of the SHS sophomore named on the "hating" group said she was notified of its existence early last month. After learning about some of the things that were being written on the online site, she admitted being "pretty freaked out."
She took the time, however, to contact the group's "administrator," "officers" and other SHS students she knew on the site, all friends of her child. She did this both in person and via e-mail messages.
The mother quickly learned that her child knew about it and the group had been set up as a "joke."
A joke that several local teenagers have since said has been "blown out of proportion."
"We have been keeping an eye on it for a while, just to make sure," the Spencer teenager's mother said of the group. " ... We didn't make a big deal out of it, and maybe we should have. I just thought the more attention we gave it, the more kids would find it. I really thought it would just kind of settle down."
The mother then offered a sage bit of advice to students about the comments they post on Internet sites such as Facebook: "What kids aren't considering is that employers are looking at Facebook. And if they go back, we know it's (the group) a joke -- but other people don't know it's a joke. I know there were some kids who are past-high school students that are thinking it was serious. So, outsiders looking in might think that it was really awful. And employers, if they got on there, it said, 'He's high 24/7' -- employers would look at that and say, 'This is not someone I want working for me.' So, in that sense, it incriminates (my child) because they don't know that it's a joke. The other thing is we know these kids. There are some really good kids on there, and I would hate for them to have criminal charges based on harassment because of the things they have written. I know that they're joking around, but other people don't necessarily know that. ... Kids need to understand this is punishable by law. It is harassment."
She also encouraged other parents to take note of their children's Internet postings "because they're incriminating themselves by putting their names associated with this."
In the meantime, another Facebook site, perhaps to counter negative comments made on the original one, has been formed by the SHS sophomore initially named.
According to the child's mother, it was also formed in jest.