Spy Kids: We're Snooping on Students to Stop Them From Snooping on Each Other

In fall 2012, a rattled ninth-grade girl came into the assistant principal's office at Albany High — a small public school in an East Bay suburb near Berkeley — with the type of complaint that ninth-grade girls have voiced since time immemorial: An 11th grader was hitting on her. At first, she was flattered. She flirted back. The idea of dating an upperclassman seemed titillating, a kind of status symbol.

Then, through a series of conversations that must have occurred offline, the 11th grader made clear that their relationship was a ruse. That, in fact, he and a group of friends were conspiring in something that upperclassmen boys have done since time immemorial: holding a competition to see who could have sex with the most freshman girls. They bragged about their exploits on Facebook and Twitter. They called it the Underclassman Bitch League.

Assistant Principal Susan Charlip (who, full disclosure, was my English teacher at Albany High) had to investigate. “So I would read these kids' Twitter pages until I understood what the terms meant,” she says now, a year later. “They were basically inappropriate comments about — how do I say this? — sexual habits, interests, and, uh — proclivities.” Members of the Bitch League quoted rap lyrics, bragged about sexual positions, and philosophized about “bitches.” They posted pictures of themselves drinking Bombay Sapphire gin.

“I mean, if that's what you're into, then more power to you,” Charlip says. “But do you really want people to read that?”

It didn't take a ton of sleuthing to identify the six main Bitch League conspirators. Most of them went by their real names on social media, and even the ones who had avatars often posted real pictures of themselves. Some of them were top students — the kind who got courted by colleges and spoke at public events, and generally saw themselves as beyond reproach.

“So I talked to the girls, and I talked to the boys, and they all started talking to each other,” Charlip recalls. “And one of the boys changed his Twitter name to 'Ms. Charlip' as a form of protest. I spent a lot of time in this underworld of their stupidity.”

In the end, though, she wasn't able to punish the boys for besmirching the girls' reputations, or the girls for becoming accomplices in their own exploitation. Technically, the whole incident had occurred outside of school grounds. And the extent to which it bled into classroom life, either as mere distraction or as reason for kids to be jeered, was difficult to determine.

After calling the kids into her office repeatedly and notifying their parents, Charlip felt she'd exhausted all disciplinary measures. She handed out copies of the school's sexual harassment policy and advised everyone to set their accounts to private — mostly for their own good. College admissions officers look at this stuff, after all.

The Underclassman Bitch League scandal happened at a particularly inopportune time for Albany High School. Students and teachers were still reeling from an even more bruising incident. In October 2012, the dimpled, well-liked, 28-year-old middle school teacher James Izumizaki hanged himself with a necktie after two students alleged that he had been sexually abusing them for months. His death created a huge rift in the small, affluent suburb, with some residents vehemently defending Izumizaki on social media, and others begging for sympathy toward the victims. News trucks were parked outside the school for days.

Administrators couldn't handle another media blitz. They chose to quietly break up the Bitch League without issuing any press releases or publicly chastening any students.

“I suppose I could have done more,” Charlip says. “But it would have been a stretch under the law the way it was written.” Most of the girls seemed rather sanguine — or at least smugly complacent — about their role in the sex league, and Charlip had trouble convincing some of them that a guy who posts these things about you isn't your boyfriend. Within a few weeks, the whole thing blew over.

Around the same time that year, a similar scandal erupted at a nearby school in another tony East Bay suburb. Piedmont High's “Fantasy Slut League” arose when several male varsity athletes began keeping score of their exploits with female students, many of whom were unwitting draftees. The game was exposed during a school date-rape assembly in October, which inspired a scorching letter to parents from Principal Rich Kitchens. Though Piedmont administrators never punished the participants and no criminal charges were filed, the story ultimately became national news. (The Albany High league was apparently an attempt to emulate Piedmont.)

Commentators in the media often expressed more shock at Piedmont High's administrative inaction than the more humdrum revelation that upperclass boys prey on underclass girls. But what really made the sex league stories salacious — and disquieting — was their public nature. The boys at Piedmont had broadcast their stats online, much the way players tout wins in a fantasy sports league. Similarly, the Albany fiasco had occurred, in large part, over Facebook and Twitter. Whatever sex acts had happened seemed inconsequential compared to the online spread of degradation and public shaming and braggadocio.

“There's this question of bullying,” Charlip says, “and how much they felt bullied or were bullying other people. And then there's the question of whether they were just doing the electronic version of what happened in the wood-paneled basement.” Meaning teens were just as lascivious in previous generations, but they weren't broadcasting their lives.

“I mean, we did all those things,” Charlip says, pausing to chew on the thought. “But nobody put it on a billboard on Route 9.”

Those particular images of social media — as both a billboard and a wood-paneled basement — crop up over and over again when parents, school administrators, and legal experts try to describe its repercussions. Adults who grew up with rickety dial-up connections and AOL instant messenger often lament how noxious social media has become, and how much it's poisoned their kids' lives. Sure, they were just as bad, the logic goes. But they limited their mudslinging to bathroom graffiti or notes passed in class. Twitter, with its endless fire hose of teen blather, is far more potent.


“It's as though we've put all teenagers in a room together with megaphones, and left them unsupervised,” Sue Porter, dean of students at the Branson School in Marin, says of social media. “And now we have to punish them for being loud.”

In fact, policymakers are tweaking the education code to do just that. But their desire to shield teens from one another may interfere with students' First Amendment rights. While parents and legislators say they only want to create a safe world for children, legal experts say our protective zeal is now at loggerheads with our technology, and with normal teen behavior.

Bullying has always been around. What's changed is our reaction: Heightened media coverage of a few exceptional, tragic cases has created the illusion of a bullying epidemic, and lawmakers have responded by applying 21st-century principles of surveillance and legal control to teenagers — thus creating, in schools, a security state writ small.

At its most extreme, the social media megaphone isn't just obscene or obnoxious; it also has had grave consequences. Saratoga parents Lawrence and Sheila Pott say that social media provided the means for a group of high school bullies to torment their 15-year-old daughter, Audrie, who hanged herself last September. The Potts are waging a wrongful death suit that charges four of Audrie's peers for a battery of crimes, including invasion of privacy and negligent infliction of emotional distress. This year, the Potts also helped enact a state law that would allow schools to suspend or expel students for their behavior in cyberspace.

The law's author, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, says that it unties school administrators' hands when they're faced with a sex league-type scandal — or even a spate of text messages that spiral out of control. “The way the previous law was written, there had to be a nexus,” Charlip says. “The bullying had to happen at school or on school property.”

The new law extends that purview to all forms of electronic communication, even if they originate off-campus. A spokeswoman from Garcia's office described it as a “tool” to help administrators who previously felt powerless when students complained about online harassment from peers. “Before, teachers could say, 'My hands are tied,'” the spokeswoman explains. “Now they have a little more teeth.”

But some teachers and administrators believe it's not their duty to legislate against child aggression, or intervene in conflicts that, in previous decades, would never have come to light. Porter believes it's an excuse to “criminalize children's behavior,” often for momentary actions that spiral out of control. A kid might be culpable for any nasty text messages he writes, Porter says, but he's not responsible for the recipient who keeps looking at them and getting more and more upset. “Now, that 9-year-old can be expelled,” she says.

And, judging from previous court cases about schools' authority over conduct off-campus, the law might not even be constitutional. David Greene, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls the law “hugely problematic” because it empowers school principals to decide that a certain type of speech doesn't deserve First Amendment protection.

“We're vesting principals — not judges — with this decision-making, which I don't think should be part of what they do,” Greene says. He and Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman also predict that schools might see more lawsuits from parents who accuse the school of failing to adequately use the law to “protect” their children from online harassment.

But as a father of two San Francisco public school students, Greene admits that he's somewhat conflicted. For anyone horrified by Audrie Pott's suicide, or the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case — in which a group of high school football players allegedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl while friends filmed with their cellphones — the tension between cyber-bullying and First Amendment law might stir up complicated feelings.

“I should offer this disclaimer,” Greene says. “I think cyber-bullying is a horrible, horrible thing, and I agree that it's a huge problem, and anything I say is in that light.”

Many people agree with him about the gravity of the problem. It's engendered so much hysteria, both in the Bay Area and nationally, that many parents unequivocally support Assemblywoman Garcia's law and others like it. Before the advent of social media, it seems, schools trod more lightly around free speech and privacy; adults wouldn't jump to strip a student's First Amendment rights. Now, that question is open for debate.

Tucked inside a cream-colored, stucco building in San Francisco's Mission District, Buena Vista Horace Mann School has the same wholesome character as Albany High without the small-town attributes. On many mornings a peal of horns brays through the school cafeteria as the school band practices its scales. Obama posters adorn the main office, alongside framed Crayola drawings to celebrate Gay Pride week. The only markedly out of place feature is a large flatscreen surveillance video on the office wall, capturing black-and-white footage of everything that happens within the school grounds. Like many San Francisco schools, Buena Vista Horace Mann began installing cameras over the last few years as part of a districtwide “modernization.”

Kids flit in and out of the camera frame on an unseasonably warm day in November, many of them wearing skirts over their jeans. The school named this day “Skirts for Sasha,” a commemoration for Sasha Fleischman, the 18-year-old Maybeck High School senior who suffered severe burns when another teenager lit his skirt on an AC Transit bus. (Fleischman identifies as agender and reportedly wears skirts as a political statement.)

The students at Buena Vista Horace Mann get as many lessons in social tolerance as previous generations got in the War on Drugs. They have leadership classes, counselors, diversity assemblies, and a digital ethics curriculum designed by the local nonprofit Common Sense Media, whose founders want to teach children how to be good citizens on the Internet. (Over the past two years, all San Francisco public schools began implementing Common Sense lesson plans in their classrooms.) In many ways, the school exemplifies a certain San Francisco ideal of people coming together in spite of their differences.


But it's still awash in protective infrastructure — from the video cameras scattered about the school to the anti-bullying curriculum taught inside the classrooms. That security features are so embedded in the school's architecture suggests that the idea of monitoring kids has become prevalent and accepted. In that light, then, this new law seems like more of the same.

District Attorney George Gascón, who launched his “Bye-Bye Bullying” student video contest a couple of years ago, frequently cites research saying 56 percent of teens nationally have been victims of Internet harassment. He doesn't see as many cases reported in San Francisco, since they're now being handled by schools' internal bureaucracies. On a broad scale, though, Gascón views cyber-bullying as a scourge.

“If you're looking at the last several years, I think it is growing,” he says. Or, as Rosemary Higgins, an eighth grader at Buena Vista Horace Mann, puts it during “Skirts for Sasha” day, “There are hella creepers on social media.”

But not every school takes the soft-enforcement, prevention-oriented approach favored in San Francisco.

Some would rather create their own security state to help monitor — and micro-manage — students' Internet lives. And now the tools are available to do that: Last year, Glendale Unified School District hired a Hermosa Beach-based start-up, Geo Listening, to track the social media posts of its 14,000 middle and high school students. Per its contract, the district spends $40,500 a year for the company's analysts to identify key words — anything related to bullying, petty crimes, suicidal thoughts, lewd language, or even swear words — and then to flag and screen-grab the posts and send them to school administrators. Geo Listening says that this year it expects to contract with thousands of schools nationally, a prospect that makes Porter at the Branson School recoil.

“And we're worried about the NSA?” she says. “Here we are, terrified about the government spying us, and yet we're really eager to spy on our kids. We're just that paranoid.”

Kids don't make it so easy to track them. While there's no single network that teenagers prefer, it's clear that most of them are extremely canny on social media, and apt to bounce around precisely to avoid adult oversight.

Kids at Buena Vista Horace Mann, Lincoln High School, and Oakland Tech explained their migratory pattern: When Facebook became the province of old people showcasing their baby pictures or preening about their lasagna, teens had already fled to Instagram and Twitter. Then they bounced to a Twitter video application called Vine — which allows users to express themselves through six-second looped videos. Then they moved to Snapchat, the ephemeral photo-sending app through which users send images that are automatically erased shortly after they're opened. Then they tried a text-messaging service called Kik. Some ultimately returned to Facebook, but adjusted their privacy settings.

Albany High alum Hannah Trumbull — who witnessed the Bitch League scandal and wrote about it for the school newspaper — says she prefers Twitter and Snapchat because “they haven't been infiltrated by the adult world.” Lincoln High seniors Jimmy Chen and Ezra De Asis say the kids at their school prefer a more intricate form of expression: They'll jot things down on their cellphone Notepad applications, screen-grab the note, and then post the picture to Instagram.

Few school administrators have ventured as deep into the Neverland of teen social media as Charlip, who published a primer on teen texting on Albany High's website two years ago.

“We are living in one of those rare moments in time where the young have more knowledge around technology than adults and we depend on them for some basic needs like no generation before us,” she wrote. “For example, if you see your child's cell phone or Facebook page saying LMIRL (“let's meet in real life”), it might be time to start asking some questions.”

For parents who might feel addled by the wide reach and voluminousness of the new technology, trying to keep up is a bit like playing whack-a-mole. “There's no way for them to keep up,” University of Wisconsin professor and cyber-bullying expert Justin Patchin says. Most kids are early technology adopters, he explains. And they're also adept at not being seen.

That puts school administrators in an awkward position when they're still responsible for students' safety. It also makes them vulnerable to lawsuits, should they receive a harassment complaint and ignore it — not out of indifference, but because they don't have the resources to keep up, Patchin says.

But that doesn't mean they should be hiring tech companies to do Orwellian-style surveillance, Santa Clara University law professor Goldman says. Deeming the Geo Listening contract a sinkhole for money, he questions schools' eagerness to police kids online, especially in light of a law that has yet to be tested in court.

“Sure, there are some things kids say online that are so unforgivable that they have to be punished,” Goldman says. “But most of the things kids do or say online are just teachable moments. I'm baffled that, over and over again, administrators take a teachable moment and turn it into cause for discipline.”

Porter says she's not surprised that so much trust has eroded between adults and kids. To her, this new law — and the surveillance policies that cropped up around it — are just a logical extension of the “inflammatory way” that we talk about child aggression. “I talked to a school principal the other day, and he had a parent in his office who wanted to sue a second-grade girl for harassment against his child,” she says. “When you're living in a state that settles everything through legislation and lawsuits, then it becomes the way we parent our children.”


In essence, Porter says, we're delegating the job of parenting to the courts.

And the courts can't be relied on

to redress the most extreme cyber-bullying cases anyway, including the ones that Assemblywoman Garcia's bill intended to fix. Stories like the suicide of Audrie Pott are so jarring that they tend to dominate our discourse about cyber-bullying. It's easy to forget how rare they are — to conflate a few isolated, tragic incidents and think they denote a trend.

This past September, journalists began publishing the online chats and text messages that Audrie Pott received shortly after she was sexually assaulted at a party in September 2012 and photographed by a group of boys she'd known since middle school. The boys drew all over Pott's body while she lay, drunk and unconscious, in the upstairs bedroom of a friend's house.

The next day, Pott woke up in a strange bed, saw her graffitied body, and couldn't remember what happened to her. She spent the next few days trying to retrace the night's events, and suppress the photos before they went viral on Facebook. Within a week, she'd endured the Internet equivalent of being shamed in a public square — a kind of high school smear campaign that quickly got out of control. In their court complaint, the Potts contended that the only way for their daughter to escape such extreme humiliation was to take her own life.

“Audrie was not the first teenager to endure such atrocities and shame, and thereon take her own life,” they wrote in the court complaint. “Short of laws designed to protect our children from such circumstances, including bullying on our school campuses, Audrie may not be the last.”

Indeed, several other high-profile teen cyber-bully cases have created similar media storms in the last few years, many of them with a similar narrative arc. In September, Florida 14-year-old Rebecca Sedwick was found in an abandoned concrete plant, where she'd apparently jumped to her death. She'd suffered jeering messages from a former classmate over a boy that both of them had dated. When news spread about Sedwick's suicide, the tormenter allegedly posted a Facebook status update that led to her arrest: “Yes IK I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF ['I don't give a fuck.'].” The suspect, Guadalupe Shaw, was ultimately released for lack of evidence.

In April, a San Jose woman, Amanda Brownell, decided to go off life support for injuries she suffered four years ago after trying to hang herself in the school restroom at Del Mar High School. Brownell's parents believe she was a victim of derisive text messages, but they have no clear proof — by the time she attempted suicide, Brownell, then a high school sophomore, had deleted the offensive trail from her cellphone.

Though these cases generate lurid headlines, and though they seem to reveal volumes about teen cruelty, Patchin and other experts maintain that they're outliers. He and his colleague, Sameer Hinduja, have conducted nine longitudinal studies over the past eight years to assess the cyber-bully epidemic, and their conclusions debunk some of the conventional wisdom about teen behavior on the Internet. Of the nearly 15,000 middle and high school students they surveyed, about 24 percent said they'd been cyber-bullied at some point in their lives. That's one-in-four, which demonstrates that bullying is common among teens — and, in fact, always has been. But it also means that only a minuscule percentage of those cases led to suicide.

Certainly, everybody wants to prevent that 24 percent of bullying cases, but the challenge is to do it without infringing on the rights of the 100 percent. The trend of monitoring and legal oversight suggests that parents and legislators have become so fixated on the marginal instances in which bullying leads to tragedy that they've forgotten to protect the whole.

To Porter, of Branson School, it's dangerous when an atypical story is made typical. Or when politicians use these emotionally wrenching, outlier cases to draft laws that affect the general teenage population.

“We're basically trying to legislate against any kid ever killing themselves again,” she says, “and that won't work.” Rather than eradicate the extreme cases, the new law will likely just provoke a “heightened, overzealous” irrational response to non-extreme cases — like a pair of 12-year-old girls exchanging spiteful text messages. “And we all know 12-year-old girls say shitty things to each other all the time,” Porter says. She points out that it would also be difficult to ascribe guilt in the case of a text message spat in which both girls were instigators.

Writing about the Bitch League scandal for Albany High's school newspaper, The Cougar, Trumbull argued that Twitter provides proof of sentiments that have existed for generations. “By broadcasting misogynistic jokes amongst friends to the world, Twitter provides the mixed blessing of making sexism visible,” she wrote.

“Honestly, I think high school students are the same as they've ever been,” Trumbull, now a freshman at UC Davis, says a year after her social media editorial was published. “What's scaring people is seeing letter by letter what kids are writing.”

For all the drama it's seen over the past year, Albany High hasn't rushed to implement a new cyber-bullying policy, or install surveillance cameras in its locker rooms and cafeterias.

Like their counterparts in San Francisco, Albany administrators still see a “teachable moment” in every scandal: a school, after all, is a place where kids learn to tolerate one another. It's a place where adults inculcate societal values — but many educators believe that paranoia, suspicion, litigious impulses, and a willingness to be monitored or controlled shouldn't be among them.

That said, Charlip acknowledges that the new cyber-bully law could have been somewhat enabling, if she'd had it at her disposal during the sex-league scandal. She's just not exactly sure how she would have deployed it.


“There are many cases in which this kind of law unshackles the hands of administrators,” she says. “But on the other hand, it shouldn't be up to administrators to investigate into a kid's home life … and it isn't the school's job to regulate the drama that constantly ensues from kids' dynamics.” During her tenure at Albany High, she says, students would often come into the office brandishing screenshots of snarky tweets or Facebook posts — full documentation of a friendship gone wrong.

“I have hundreds of pages of this kind of drivel,” she says, adding that ultimately, she was unable to solve every spat or prank or sexist comment or relationship problem — it's a kid's responsibility to manage his own behavior online.

She and other educators see inherent flaws in the law, despite its utility. It's too broad and overreaching, and it puts an undue burden on schools to answer every complaint, or divert resources toward every investigation, when those resources are scant to begin with. Moreover, Charlip says, it leans on traditional disciplinary measures like suspensions and expulsion, which are a poor way to handle a cyber-bully.

“Suspension — that's the worst kind of isolation, ever,” Charlip says. “Because what do you think the kid is gonna do all day when his parents are at work?”

The answer seems obvious: Go on the Internet.

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