Apr 08, 2012 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Charlsea Brewer could hear them talking. Too many eyes watched her.
It wasn't just the other teenagers from Kearney Junior High at a Wednesday night church youth group, but adults, too.
A mom was talking to a pastor. Charlsea heard something barely in the whispers: "That's the girl who..."
She was a 14-year-old eighth-grader learning what it's like to be the sudden target of violent rumors whipped by the reckless world of Facebook.
Charlsea did not create a "hit list" targeting popular schoolmates.
But here and across the country, real fear rising from tragedies like recent school shootings is infesting a digitally wired culture and launching gossip like shrapnel.
The pain falls heavily on real lives, and schools find they are powerless or caught off-guard.
"It's a rampant problem and we are not doing a good job handling it," said Larry Rosen, a professor who specializes in the psychology of technology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
"We as a generation, and I mean everyone -- teachers, parents, politicians -- have to consider this a major issue that we have to tackle."
The Kearney rumor took off after school officials had talked to Charlsea privately about something she said on the bus. Out of the frustration of a teenager who felt picked on, she said she wished all the popular kids would get shot.
It was never a real threat, the school determined. But a schoolmate then concocted the rumor about a hit list, and Kearney found out how hard it is for schools and their communities to undo the damage of social media once it's done.
Just as it was hard in Fort Osage to assure people last month that bands of students going by the names of Thunder Cats and the Dog Pound were not marshaling a Friday after-school rumble.
And hard in Olathe to quell gossip that police watching for rumored post-fight retaliation at Olathe North had confiscated a gun.
The Park Hill School District also was terrorized earlier this year by the threat of a hit list spread online that investigators determined was false.
Megan Kimberlin, a Kearney parent and a consultant on youth protection issues, witnessed much of the rumoring on Facebook and in texts on her phone.
"The lies kept growing and growing," she said. "I knew someone was at the heart of this nest, and that's just heartbreaking."
Charlsea and her mother, contacted by The Star, thought it was important to share their story.
The night of the church youth group, Charlsea called her mother, Lisa Jimenez, in tears to come and take her home.
She sat in front of the television -- no longer able to check Facebook because her mother had taken her off it to keep her from seeing any more.
Then came a phone text from one of her friends. Charlsea looked to it hopefully. But it was only worse, she said.
"He said, 'I don't want to hang out with you anymore. Too much drama.'"
Fully half of all Americans are social networking.
The numbers, according to the Pew Research Center, skew higher among younger generations, including teens and their parents.
More than 95 percent of U.S. teenagers are online, and eight out of 10 of them are using social media.
More than 30 percent of teenagers have smart phones, and they're averaging 60 texts a day. Eighteen percent of them are averaging more than 200 texts a day.
"Social media are vital to teens' lives," said Amanda Lenhart, a researcher with Pew. "This is their space of social interaction."
But just how, and with what authority, schools can intercede when interactions go awry is a struggle, she said.
"The legal landscape is not clear," she said. "With stuff that happens outside of school, you can't intervene reasonably."
Schools can't monitor private Facebook pages. And even public pages like teenagers' blogs and Twitter can pitch school officials into the gap between protecting the school's learning environment and the teenager's right of free speech, Lenhart said.
Once a rumor takes shape, the social media talk isn't necessarily malicious -- not when parents and students are fearing for their safety.
Just days after a Chardon, Ohio, teenager opened fire and killed three students Feb. 27, a girl at a high school an hour away in Girard, Pa., simply speculated aloud in class on whom she thought would be the type to bring a gun to their school.
That was a Friday. By Sunday, according to news reports, rumors online had turned the speculation into an actual threat that one 17-year-old student was coming to school with a gun the next day, on the one-week anniversary of the Chardon shooting.
Police went to his house that Sunday afternoon and found nothing to be concerned about.
But by then the family had been subjected to angry and hateful posts online.
Olathe's Internet odyssey spiked after a lunchtime fight between two students, police spokesman Sgt. Grant Allen said.
Schools and police always worry that students might continue or escalate a conflict, so they were watchful.
Rumors of more violence, supposedly coming March 1, were taken seriously, Allen said.
"There was no confirmed threat of retaliation," he said.
But that was not the word on Facebook.
"Kids started posting all kinds of things -- they'd seen a gun, they'd seen police take a gun," Allen said.
"There was never a gun involved."
A day later, Fort Osage was overwhelmed in fallout over its own fight situation, this one staged by a few high school students in a neighborhood outside school.
"We thought we had handled it," district spokeswoman Stephanie Smith said.
But someone had created a false profile on Facebook, describing groups of students as if they were gangs, urging them to renew the fight, and projecting a date.
Postings raced among students and reached parents, many of them warning others to keep their kids home, all making for a tense Friday.
"All of these back-and-forth conversations were happening on social media that we didn't know about," Principal Jason Snodgrass said.
Some parents were upset, Smith said, wanting to know why they hadn't been warned of the danger. It was because the school didn't think there was any significant threat.
One caller had heard someone was shot at the middle school, but nothing was happening at the middle school, she said.
Some parents calling the high school wanted to know how long it would be under lockdown, Snodgrass said.
"We never were in a lockdown."
Ever since Columbine altered the landscape of school safety 13 years ago, school districts have built and revised plans to assess threats.
These days, however, teams doing that work had better have someone with digital expertise, said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.
"Schools need to understand the viral nature of the world we live in," she said.
Some school systems around the nation are creating online sites or purchasing services that give students and parents a place to report concerns or rumors.
They become sites, unlike private Facebook pages, that schools can monitor, Willard said.
Students or parents who see a possible threat have a prescribed way to report a situation "and it is less likely to explode."
Several area school districts have purchased text-a-tip services. Students can use their phones to send texts about concerns or threats without their number showing on the other end. Districts typically have principals or a police student resource officer receive the texts.
"It's a TIPS Hotline for kids," said North Kansas City School District spokeswoman Mary Jo Burton.
The Shawnee Mission School District has a button on its school web pages where students can anonymously report concerns.
Park Hill, which uses a text-a-tip service, still saw the false rumor of a hit list get out of control, spokeswoman Nicole Kirby said.
All of a school's defenses are complicated and imperfect.
Schools urge parents to keep track of their children's web activity. They should be "friends" on their Facebook pages and get their passwords.
But, as in the cases of the rumors pitched in Park Hill and Fort Osage, teens often create false Facebook profiles to stir their trouble.
Disciplining abusers is likewise hard for districts to manage when it comes to online posts done outside school.
The Lee's Summit School District recently suspended two students over what the district determined were offensive comments on a blog, but lost in court when the families claimed free speech rights. The district has appealed.
Law enforcement also can get involved, Allen said.
Investigators can request a court subpoena to search web postings if they have reason to suspect someone of harassment or endangerment, he said.
Probably the best preventive action schools can take, Willard said, is to get serious about dealing with the bullying that is so often at the root of the social media outbreaks.
Too often, she said, schools punish the student who reacted after being bullied -- which ends up being a victory for the bullies.
"Instead of suspensions," she said, "we need to resolve these situations in a restorative way."
Charlsea may find some good come of it all.
It had already been a difficult school year. Eighth grade is hard for many students, particularly for Charlsea, who has attended schools in several districts.
Kearney Junior High is her fourth school in four years.
"I'm hyper. I'm loud. I'm jumpy," she said. "People have called me names."
But she's not "crazy," "psycho," or any of the other imaginings posted on Facebook when the bogus rumors of a hit list were peaking.
It seemed then, Jimenez said, that her daughter's life "was falling apart in a couple of hours."
But they both also saw people who stood up for her, some of them people they didn't know, cautioning about bad rumors.
Once Kearney's administrators and staff were able to catch their breath, they met to sort out what had happened.
There were lessons for everyone, Superintendent Bill Nicely said.
When the Internet is good, it represents an exciting time for education and a world of collaborating learners.
"Students are at the forefront of that," Nicely said. But everyone also has to position themselves to manage the bad Internet that "metastasizes electronically."
The district has had meetings with staff, students and parents, he said.
They've urged students to consider the impact of their words before they hit "send," to know that a hurtful post "is akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater," Nicely said.
They want parents to watch their children's web activity, and monitor their own, and if they see something alarming unfolding, including in the night, to call someone.
Charlsea says she's going to change.
"I used to pick on people, too," she said. "I'd point and laugh.
"I'm not that person anymore."
Some friends still stay away. Some parents aren't letting their teenagers come back around her.
But some are back.
Including the boy who thought it was all too much drama.
To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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