Incident exposes concerns about cyberbullying
May 3, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah girls, 11 and 12, charged in Facebook case
The lewd messages and photos started appearing on 12-year-old Leslie Cote’s Facebook page at about 3 p.m. March 18.
Investigators said someone scrawled the phrase “I’m a slut” across a photo of the Issaquah Middle School sixth-grader and used the site’s instant messaging service to proposition boys for sexual acts.
Officers arrested a pair of Issaquah girls, ages 11 and 12, for the R-rated prank hours later. The girls have been charged with cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing — and face up to 30 days in juvenile detention if convicted. The girls are the youngest people to be charged in King County under the state electronic harassment law.
The Issaquah Press usually does not name defendants age 12 or younger.
In the days after the county prosecutor filed charges April 26, the incident attracted comparisons to “Mean Girls” — a 2004 comedy about a catty high school clique — and directed a national spotlight on cyberbullying.
Officials said filing charges in the groundbreaking case is meant in part to launch a discussion about civility in the social media age.
“I think there’s been this pervasive sentiment that the Internet is some giant, lawless place where you can act anonymously without any sort of repercussion,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in a telephone interview April 29. “That’s not true.”
Leslie’s mother Tara Cote and fiancé Jon Knight learned about the lewd content from Leslie’s Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor. Other changes to the page included devil horns scratched on a photo of Leslie and the addition of a photo depicting a woman with “disproportionate breasts,” court documents state.
Cote said she left the room and vomited after seeing the lewd content on her daughter’s profile. Then, Cote called the Issaquah Police Department.
“I don’t even know how to describe this, I’m calling 911 about Facebook,” she recalled.
Cote also filed for a civil anti-harassment order — a matter handled separately from the criminal case — in King County Superior Court in late March. The order prevents the suspects in the case from contacting Leslie, although the girls remain in some classes together.
‘The whole world sees it’
Investigators said Leslie somehow stored the Facebook password on the 11-year-old suspect’s computer. The girls used to be friends until a “falling out” before the incident, court documents state.
“The old bully-on-the-playground thing, that was bad, and picking on kids is bad — period, no matter what,” Knight said. “Now, when you take it on the Internet, the whole world sees it.”
The family spent days after the April 26 announcement fielding interviews from the network TV affiliates in Seattle and cable TV. The decision to reach out to news outlets and encourage journalists to name Leslie in coverage prompted criticism in some quarters. The family is unapologetic about the decision.
“If you want to market something, especially a serious issue like this, Marketing 101 says get their attention,” Knight said.
Prosecutors said the 12-year-old defendant is due to be arraigned in Juvenile Court on May 10.
The younger defendant is scheduled for a hearing May 10 to determine if she understands the impact of the case. State law presumes children 8 to 11 lack the capacity to commit a crime.
“The question is, when does it go beyond a prank, beyond hurtful words to becoming a crime?” Satterberg asked. “Prosecutors don’t want to be the policemen of the Internet. We don’t want to intervene unless something has crossed that line.”
Under state law, the girls face up to 30 days in juvenile detention, but community service is a more likely sentence.
“Our goal in charging this case is not to put these girls in detention. It’s not to give them a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their days,” Satterberg said. “It is to have them stand up in front of a judge and be held accountable and, frankly, to ask them to apologize.”
Technology fuels harassment
Issaquah Police Cmdr. Scott Behrbaum said the incident is increasingly common as children turn to social media sites to continue schoolyard taunting — albeit in a detached manner.
“If you’re face to face with somebody, you’re less likely to do something,” Behrbaum said. “It allows you to have this distance and this comfort level to say, ‘I can throw that out there’ and nothing really happens.”
Michelle Bennett, a King County Sheriff’s Office captain and national expert on cyberbullying, said technology, such as cellphones and social media services, enables adolescents to act on grudges beyond the school campus.
“Back in the day, girls took out these aggressions using gossip or withholding friendship. For boys, a schoolyard fight was an easy method to avenge wrongs or to take out aggression on someone or something they did not like or care for,” she said. “Again, the obvious emerging trend these days is to use social media to avenge perceived wrongs. It’s not hard to imagine, as most youth prefer a text message to actual conversation.”
Facebook includes language about limiting users to age 13 and older, but Satterberg said the age limit amounts to “unenforceable internal policy” and does not affect the case.
“I think the important thing to mention is that these perpetrators probably didn’t realize the consequences of their actions,” Bennett said.
Cote said her daughter uses Facebook to reach friends and family members across the United States. She said she received Facebook updates from her daughter via cellphone until the suspects deleted family members from the girl’s friend list March 18.
Education is key for parents, schools
Noah Kindler, cofounder of SocialShield, a tech startup formed to allow parents to track children on social media sites, said even vigilant parents cannot monitor children on Facebook 24/7.
“Do parents know 100 percent of the time what the kid is doing on Facebook? It would be almost impossible,” he said from the company’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif. “A parent would have to sit and stare at the kid’s computer with the kid, which is why, even for great parents, there’s a limit to how much time and how much energy they can put into monitoring Facebook.”
School administrators investigated the incident, although because it occurred off campus and outside of the school day, they lacked the ability to discipline the suspects. Still, administrators used the incident as a chance to educate students about Internet safety and etiquette.
“Just as most schools have taken a hard stance on traditional bullying, schools and school districts need to take a hard stance on cyberbullying, providing disciplinary consequences should cyberbullying activities disrupt the orderly operation of the school,” Bennett said. “Proper training and education about the types and effects of cyberbullying for parents, youth and school staff is extremely important.”
Issaquah School District spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said the incident did not cause a disruption on the 733-student Issaquah Middle School campus.
“On campus, I think the kids are aware of it, but I don’t think that it has sunk in to the effect that it’s impacting classrooms,” she said.
Students at the school focused on online safety in February and plan to attend scheduled Internet safety assemblies in May. The school scheduled the assemblies before the cyberbullying incident.
Ombudsman Steve Zuber, at the state Office of the Education Ombudsman, said the effects from a bullying incident can be felt throughout a school.
“The thing that I say in my presentations to parents is that 100 percent of the youth are affected by bullying and harassment,” he said. “If they’re not the target, they may be the perpetrator. If they’re not the target or the perpetrator, they’re definitely a bystander. It affects them emotionally. It affects their attitude toward school and other kids.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.