Editor’s Note: This story first appeared online at newtondailynews.com. Since then, one of the two original Facebook pages referenced in this story was taken down briefly but then relaunched. The other page made reference to the article and announced it had launched a sister page called “NHS Compliments.”
For today’s college student, it’s not uncommon to get an invitation to join a “confessions” page on Facebook where students share their deepest secrets anonymously.
In recent months, however, the social media phenomenon has begun to spring up on high school campuses across the country. On Monday, the fad reached Newton when not one but two confessions pages were established targeting Newton Senior High School.
“Today, we learned there is at least one negative Facebook account that is putting out very negative — slanderous and vulgar — comments about students and staff,” Superintendent Steve McDermott said. “We’ve had students come to us and say they felt hurt and violated by what they saw there.”
Some of the “confessions” are an outlet for embarrassing stories. Others talked about moderately humorous pranks pulled on other students. But most are anonymous admissions — true or not — of illegal activity, usually on campus, that are too vulgar to be printed.
Some of the “confessions” are intended to spread rumors about other students, which could lead to harassment or bullying. Others talk about how students are bullied and harassed by the students at the school.
“It’s a form of bullying and harassment, but it’s very difficult to police,” McDermott said. “We just don’t have the people power to monitor this sort of thing 24 hours a day … It’s very frustrating. But, we’re open to ideas in this regard. It’s a tough nut to crack.”
McDermott said several weeks ago, the district discovered a Twitter account had been created. The account’s owner was using it to post negative comments things about students and staff at the school.
“We went the legal route, working with the school district’s attorneys, to ask Twitter for the removal of the account and some of the entries,” McDermott said.
He added one could point to a “general lack of respect” and disregard for the long-term impacts comments like these will have on other people. He said the district continues to work with students at all grade levels on the issues of character, values and respecting other people.
“But things like this still crop up,” he said. “The anonymous nature [of Facebook “confessions” pages] makes it simple to say something, and then they get away with it. Some people have no conscience with how they treat other people.”
Facebook is not banned or blocked on the campus. In fact, the athletic department and high school guidance counselors have Facebook accounts to reach out to students and district patrons. Principal Bill Peters said Facebook is a “great place to exchange information.”
“Social media is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s a great way to exchange meaningful information in a way that conducts learning. The other side, though, is malicious and hurtful. Unfortunately, it can make it pretty tough on some students.”
Peters added that he has spoken with some of the students who have commented publicly on the page. He said those conversations were generally positive. He said it can be a learning experience for some students — that words can be hurtful. “If you look at what we’re doing with our Activities [Facebook] page, that’s what it should be,” he added. “It’s a promotion of the good things happening at school. I’d love to see social media used that way.”
Peters said his goal is to “promote kids,” and to make them feel good about their accomplishments and how they ultimately feel about themselves. He said the overall environment of the school is very healthy, but that social media can create situations in which it is unhealthy.
“We’re talking about choices made by individuals to say something derogatory, something very hurtful,” he said. “Those who have been dragged through this have been very hurt by it.”
The problem with this type of Facebook page is that all postings are anonymous, and URL tracking — a means by which a website’s administrator can be identified — is all but impossible. Some school districts have attempted legal means, most unsuccessfully, to have Facebook take the pages down.
But while the posts themselves are anonymous, “likes” and comments on the pages are not. The sites are public, and anyone can see who has liked the page, who has liked individual postings, or who has commented on individual postings.
McDermott and Peters both encouraged parents to more closely monitor their children’s online activity.
“Monitor computer use at home. Get those devices out in the open. Sit around and talk about how damaging comments like these can be to others,” McDermott said. “If you see anything alarming, contact the school so we are also aware of it.”
Online safety is touched on throughout the grade levels in the district, particularly beginning in the upper elementary levels, as part of general classes on personal safety. Trooper Doug Cutts of the Iowa State Patrol frequently works with Newton students and their parents with online safety issues.
“It’s a lot more complicated than, ‘Look both ways before you cross the street,’” McDermott said. “There probably is more we could do to promote safe use, and it’s something we’ll continuously have to look at. It’s the sort of thing we’re always going to have to deal with now.”
He said the district, as have many others across the state, have tried to work with the General Assembly regarding issues like cyberbullying. He said, ultimately, the legislature needs to do something about the issue, because local schools are powerless to act.
“I’m not the type of guy who thinks everything needs to be governed, but we really need to have some significant penalties for this sort of thing, otherwise it’s just going to continue to get worse,” he said. “This whole situation is enormous and a little overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start. It only takes one or two people to create a negative account and do a lot of damage to a lot of people.”
Daily News Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.