Joke, insult, or threat? Two websites raise concerns about students’ safety and privacy

Joke, insult, or threat?  Two websites raise concerns about students' safety and privacy

Hannah Fagen

Students wait on the front steps to have their bags checked, a procedure caused by threatening posts online.

Katya Barrett and Hannah Fagen, Hannah Fagen, and Katya Barrett

Almost every high school student uses the internet every day, not only as a source of information but also as a source of fun and entertainment. But, as both Schreiber and Weber students recently learned, playing around on the internet is not always so innocent.

Websites begun with good intentions can quickly become more serious and websites meant as a joke can become hurtful when the internet is misused.

In recent weeks, the students involved with the websites hsmemes.com and rateweber.com crossed these boundaries between internet fun and harm.

 

High School Memes

 

At some point on April 26, the website hsmemes.com went viral among the Schreiber student body. The website’s intention, according to its own information page, is to give students a place to “joke about their shared high school experiences for their particular school.”

It is obvious that the site was meant to be positive; the instructions for creating memes for a school ends with “Have fun. Be creative. Be nice. Don’t spoil the fun with bad posts!”

Initially, the Schreiber meme creatores seemed to obey these guidelines. During its first days of popularity in Port Washington, most of the memes created were about common experiences, and importantly, were generally good natured.

“I thought it was really funny at first,” said junior Ellie Zolotarev. “They were jokes about general stuff about the school that everyone could relate to.”

The memes, however, quickly became less good natured. During the weekend of April 28 and 29, the focus shifted from shared experiences to comments on specific individuals, including both students and teachers, by name.

“It slowly got more personal, but it was still funny,” said Zolotarev. “But then it just got mean, and I wasn’t amused anymore.”

Though many students believed that only they would see the memes, both school administrators and teachers were aware of the site.

“Generally, I am ambivalent about these sort of sites,” said Assistant Principal Dr. Brad Fitzgerald. “While it can be fun talking about your school and allowing anyone to become part of the conversation and inside jokes, too often it unfortunately erodes into personal attacks and discrimination. Irresponsible, public remarks are tantamount to libel. It is too bad that there is little that can be done to charge the people making unjustified, hurtful comments.”

That point, when the site became a serious issue in the eyes of the school, occurred on the night of April 31, when several threatening memes were posted on the Schreiber page of hsmemes.com.

“We became aware of the site a few days before the threats were received, and we were monitoring it,” said Principal Mr. Ira Pernick. “Having seen the site and aware of the potential for posters to create mean or insulting memes, we were concerned, but not to a point where we felt we had to take action.”

While these specific memes were general in their threats, they contained statements such as “don’t come to school tomorrow if you know what is good for you.”

After seeing these alarming memes online, several students submitted reports to Report-it.com and sent emails to alert staff members.

“I was present at junior mock interviews that evening and Mr. Pernick stopped by my room to show me an email from people who were upset by the site,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “We immediately stopped our interview plans and went into addressing the website and its potential for disrupting the school and its students. Mr. Pernick sent out a Connect Ed call to the school population. He also worked with Dr. Gordon, the other assistant principals, and the police.”

“Once we ascertained that the memes contained threats to the school and individuals, we contacted the police and the superintendent and began to plan to keep the school safe,” said Mr. Pernick.

Though school remained open on May 1, school administrators working with the Port Washington Police Department allowed only the main door of the school to be open and searched the bags of all students who entered the building throughout the day.

Port Washington Police Detective Anthony Guzzello declined to comment on the lockdown to The Schreiber Times.

In an email to parents sent that morning, the threats were deemed not credible, but still enough to require a response.

“This is all precautionary to make sure that the students and staff are protected,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoffrey Gordon. “Sometimes when people do things that are very inappropriate and, frankly, stupid with posting on the internet, we have to make sure that all precautions are taken. We have had the police sweep the school to make sure that the students and staff are protected.”

With the usual rush into school around 8:00 a.m., however, the line for backpack checking was overwhelmed, keeping students waiting in the rain to enter school for up to twenty to thirty minutes.

“This is an outrage,” said junior Clayton Klein. “I can’t believe this—they’re making me stand out in the rain. I wanted to go to school. The kid who made this meme is selfish, and I don’t like him.”

Several students, in fact, questioned the logic behind this response to the threats.

“The kid that made the threat said he was going to kill everyone in the school —having hundreds of kids stand outside is a very good target for someone trying to target a bunch of people,” said senior Adam Pollack. “I don’t think this was a very well planned and executed operation for keeping the students safe.”

Despite the sentiments of many disgruntled students standing in the rain, the vast majority of students thought that the reaction of the Schreiber administrators was fitting.

Instead of being frightened, 64 students of 195 polled said that the day’s events showed an overreaction on the part of the administrators. That only 11 students said that administrators did not do enough seems to show that students did not take hsmemes.com very seriously.

The dramatic influence that an online post on a website meant in jest had a palpable effect, as the popularity of hsmemes.com has steadily decreased among the student body.

After being ranked the #1 school in the country in terms of usage of the site on May 1, Schreiber quickly plummeted out of the top 15, perhaps as a result of realizations about the seriousness of the day’s events.

“I believe that kids should be smarter than to post those types of things on the internet,” said junior Richard Greenberg. “If that did not happen, all of the students would not have had to miss half of first period class to wait outside in the rain.”

“It was funny at first, and it should have stopped there,” said junior Elisabeth Kostallas. “Then it started to get mean, and it went overboard with the targeting of students and teachers that forced them to search bags.”

Nearly a month later, however, the memes do not have a wholly negative legacy. While 78 students said the memes were, in general, distasteful, nearly as many remembered the memes as funny. More students thought the memes were creative than dangerous.

 

Rate Weber

 

Shortly after some high school students created a possibly dangerous situation on the HS Memes site, one or more Weber Middle School students alarmed parents, students, and faculty members with a website called rateweber.com.

Through the site, users could rate and compare a selection of Weber female students based on their appearances.

“I found out about the site through Facebook,” said a Weber student whose picture, along with her first and last name, was featured on the site. “My first impression was shock. I didn’t realize that the boys would be so disrespectful to every single girl.”

The website went live at some point during the weekend of May 5, and featured photographs, taken from Facebook, of more than a dozen Weber eighth graders, none of whom agreed beforehand to be on the site.

“I didn’t really think it was a big deal at first, but then I realized the danger of being on the World Wide Web and that anyone in the whole entire world could look at a picture of me,” said the same girl. “I was in a picture in a bathing suit, and it was actually a very scary situation for me.”

The girls’ full names accompanied the pictures, and the site name indicated to any visitors where they all attended school.

“I was disgusted when I first saw it and thought how stupid the boys are,” said another student whose picture was on the website. “It was a violation of my privacy, and it put our lives in danger.”

According to a male eighth grader who was at the site’s creator’s home on the same day that the creator uploaded the website, there was a website before rateweber.com, though it was in a slightly different form.

“He had the website before me and a couple of guys and girls went to his house,” said the male eighth grader. “Then he showed us his first website, comparing girls in our grades to celebrities using a private server.”

The first website was password-protected, and only had the faces of the girls. The girls’ bodies, full names, and school were not posted on the website.

At some point later in the same day during the weekend of May 5, an entirely new website, namely, rateweber.com, appeared on the Internet.

It was not until several days later that this site came to the girls’ attention, and, shortly thereafter, that of the Weber administrative team.

“My parents were extremely upset and really wanted me to find new friends,” said the first girl interviewed. “These boys were obviously not my friends if they would do something like this.”

A few of the girls on the website went to their guidance counselors to report the situation. During the rest of the week, Weber principal Ms. Marilyn Rodahan met with the students who were involved with making the website and the parents of the girls whose pictures were online.

She also ran a series of assemblies for the entire Weber student body. The school did not punish any student for creating rateweber.com.

“I was actually surprised that the school did not do anything about it, although Ms. Rodahan did have a meeting with the kids who had masterminded the website, and then again with those parents specifically, and then with the parents of the victims,” said a Port Washington woman whose daughter’s picture was on rateweber.com. “People need to be accountable for their actions. They can endanger someone else. I would hope that, at the very least, this would be a very good learning lesson for them. I take this extremely seriously—it’s breaking my daughter’s anonymity and her privacy—it’s putting her in a risky situation.”

Just hours after the Weber administrative team became aware about the website, its creator took the entire site down.

During the less than one week that rateweber.com was online, it received several thousand hits, and the ratings on fourteen girls’ pictures advanced them in a bracket-style competition to determine who was most attractive.

“Due to confidentiality, I will only say that Weber addressed the matter and met with all sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in mini lunchtime assemblies, and with all staff and the parents of any students involved in the incident,” said Ms. Rodahan.

 

Internet Safety and Responsibility

 

Of the 195 Schreiber students polled, 99, or 51 percent, said that they had never regretted something they had posted on the internet. 176 students, however, also said that they think most teenagers do not exercise proper judgment and responsibility on the internet.

These results suggest, perhaps, that while teenagers are unwilling to recognize their own faults, they are still able to see trends of internet misuse, or perhaps students think that what they post on the internet may be irresponsible but not worth regretting.

The dangers that can occur as a result of the freedom to post, and post anonymously, on the internet are clear from recent incidents.

“The internet is a blessing and a curse,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “It’s like driving a car. It’s great if you’re responsible; otherwise, it’s dangerous.”

In some instances, it is not the website itself that is inherently hurtful but rather people’s ability to post whatever they choose.

“I don’t think it is fair to label the site as positive or negative,” said Mr. Pernick, speaking about hsmemes.com. “For me, it’s all about the user. If used responsibly, then I have no problem with it. If it is used to create fear, chaos, or generally to disrupt our school and have even one member of the school community question their own safety, then we need to take more aggressive action.”

The danger of such sites comes from the fact that many people, and teenagers in particular, do not use the internet responsibly.

“This website should be taken down because it was used to attack innocent people and to disrupt the school,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “Anonymous personal attacks are not fair, especially when they are untrue. Ask yourself why you are targeting a victim and find a healthier way to deal with it.”

The ability to post on websites such as hsmemes.com anonymously, or create websites such rateweber.com anonymously, quickly allows what seems like harmless fun to develop into a serious situation that can endanger one’s peers.

“I would always be cautious anywhere on the internet where identities can be concealed,” said Mr. Pernick. “Anonymity, like wearing a mask, often encourages people to behave differently. Anything you author, whether you sign your name to it or not, becomes a part of who you are.”

Most important are the lessons that should be learned from these events about internet responsibility. Not only should we watch what we post about others on the internet, but also what we post about ourselves.

“I do want to be more careful about what I post,” said a Weber student who appeared on rateweber.com. “I do not think that I am going to completely stop uploading pictures but I am definitely going to watch what I post. From this, I really learned about the immense dangers of the internet.”