The case in central Minnesota illustrates how the Internet can magnify the effects of schoolyard cruelty -- sometimes with criminal consequences and other times with fatal outcomes.
A 17-year-old in central Minnesota was charged last week with a felony after she allegedly hacked into a student's MySpace page and threatened to bring a gun to school to "kill everyone."
The case of Internet deception is not isolated and underscores how it can lead to serious consequences -- sometimes criminal, sometimes tragic. A Missouri teen recently killed herself after being deceived by a fake friendship online.
The Oct. 10 incident involving Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School in Grove City, Minn., caused officials to lock down the school and call law enforcement, Principal Sherri Broderius said Sunday.
Investigators linked the threat to Cozy Lynn Schick of Olivia, Minn., who attends a school in another district.
The girl somehow had found the password to the ACGC student's MySpace account and sent messages to friends on the page saying she planned to bring a gun to school, Broderius said.
With cooperation from MySpace employees, investigators tracked her down and arrested her.
Broderius said the incident indicates how what students do outside of school can have alarming results. "Kids hide in the privacy of their own rooms," she said. "They think no one else is ever going to find out."
No one came to harm in the Minnesota incident. But tragedy has resulted in some cases where teens used fake identities to harass or deceive others:
A 13-year-old girl in Missouri who had battled depression committed suicide after an online friend ended their relationship. Her family learned that the friend never existed, but was made up by a former friend and others.
In 2003, a New York teen ended his life after classmates lured him into a deceptive relationship online. Ryan Halligan, who suffered from learning disabilities and depression, killed himself after a fellow eighth-grader started a fake relationship online, then rejected him at school.
Anonymity emboldens bullies
Kris Eckstein is a former computer science teacher from Sleepy Eye, Minn., who travels to schools in central Minnesota to talk about Internet safety. The anonymity of the Web can encourage bullies to be even harsher, she said.
"It makes kids emboldened to say nastier things," she said. "You don't get any feedback" from the victim's words or facial expressions.
As new technology breeds new ways to bully, parents and teachers have a hard time keeping up, Eckstein said.
For instance, a picture taken with a cell phone camera can wind up on the Internet, altered to look obscene or to get the subject into trouble. Eckstein said she has come across cases where kids had their cell phones stolen, only to find out everyone whose number was saved in their phone has received explicit or cruel text messages.
Police also must keep up-to-date as people find new ways to harass each other, said Glen Jacobsen, assistant Renville County attorney.
While this is the first time he has seen someone charged after hacking into a MySpace account, Jacobsen said, he expects to see more such cases. His office has handled cases of threats delivered via e-mail and text messages, he said.
Although kids often keep their online lives secret from parents, adults need to find a way to be a presence in that part of their children's lives, Eckstein said. "Kids have this false sense of security about social networking," she said. "They think that the page belongs to them."
The teen who allegedly threatened ACGC High School has been charged in Renville County with making terroristic threats and with a gross misdemeanor for facilitating access to a computer security system. Officials plan to prosecute her as a juvenile, Jacobsen said.
Though the suspect's intention could have been merely to frame the student whose MySpace page she hacked into, officials can't ignore threats to a school in a "post-Columbine era," Jacobsen said.
"This is an object lesson to everybody," he said, "that you need to be cyber-aware and cyber-secure."
Courtney Blanchard 612-673-4921