Young impersonators harass and bully others. Stopping them is difficult.
The impersonator posed as a real Cottage Grove sixth-grader, created a Facebook page and posted threats that he would bring a gun to school and shoot three students.
Fights broke out in school as students argued over who created the fake profile that ridiculed the boy, a special education student. It was not only the viciousness of the lies and threats that caught the attention of Cottage Grove police, but the youthfulness of those involved, only 11 and 12.
Amid a wave of proliferating Facebook fakes and cyber-attacks like this one -- including children too young for Facebook's minimum age of 13 -- Cottage Grove police and other metro law enforcement agencies find themselves coping with outdated state laws, limited resources and a steep learning curve on children's use of social media.
"There are so many cases like this, where somebody's being harassed over Facebook, with school-age kids," said Sgt. Randy McAlister, head of Cottage Grove investigations. "Even if you could charge them all, you probably couldn't send them to the county attorney because they'd get overwhelmed very quickly. It definitely is an emerging issue."
Numerous Minnesota police departments, like Cottage Grove, are now sending officers for training in computer forensics. The Washington, Dakota and Hennepin county sheriffs' offices have dedicated specialists to work cybercrimes. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has assigned senior prosecutor Sue Harris to work in the schools and learn how kids use social media to hurt each other.
"It does pose a significant problem for law enforcement," said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton. Last week, deputies charged a 13-year-old Washington County boy on suspicion of terroristic threats after he used Facebook to threaten other kids with explicit violence at school, Hutton said. The charge is a felony.
In another recent case, disorderly conduct charges were filed against two Tartan High School girls after their Facebook feud erupted into a fight at school.
Police walk a fine line in respecting kids' First Amendment rights to express themselves on social media outside of school, while dealing with problems that result, Orput said.
"None of that is being generated at the school," Gail Griffith, a Cottage Grove school resource officer, said of the Facebook case and a second cyber case she investigated. "It's all outside in the community, at home, but it filters into the school, where they're all there together, and we end up dealing with it."
The digital cases take bullying to new heights and challenge police trying to arrest offenders and prevent violence from escalating -- or even leading to potential suicide. Officials say they need a law outlawing impersonations as well as closer supervision by parents. They also need faster turnaround for records subpoenaed from social media, said Hutton, who said deputies sometimes wait weeks.
The state has laws against harassing, threatening or stealing identities for financial gain, but none specifically against online impersonation. In Cottage Grove, police are looking at invoking a rarely used state law on criminal defamation.
"All the laws out there are 20 years behind where we are technologically, and it's very, very frustrating," Orput said.
California on Jan. 1 outlawed online impersonation, making it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Texas moved to put a law on the books, too. Orput and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said such a law is needed in Minnesota.
"We are seeing increased use of the Internet for making threats or bullying other children," Backstrom said. "It's on the rise. Cyber-bullying is a serious problem in our country."
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson proposed a law in 2007 that would have outlawed impersonating someone on a social media site. The bill failed.
"Because of the 24/7 nature of the Internet, online bullying can be difficult for kids to escape," Swanson said. "The words may or may not be true, but they are up there for everyone to see and can be malicious."
"Seven years ago, I never dealt with this, and now I deal with it at least weekly where there's something that comes from a Facebook issue outside of school and trickles into school," Griffith said. "It spreads so fast. It's instantaneous. They are communicating as soon as the bell rings, and they're out the door. They text all night and use social networks, and then they come to school again."
Although the Cottage Grove Middle School assistant principal helped Griffith interview students in her two current cases, she's heard of other school officials saying that what happens outside of school is not their problem.
If schools do take action, they walk a fine line, as well.
On March 7, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed suit against Minnewaska Area Schools and the Pope County Sheriff's Office. The suit claims school officials violated a 12-year-old girl's constitutional and privacy rights when they disciplined her and made her give them her Facebook log-in information because she allegedly posted messages about hating a hall monitor.
The school denies wrongdoing.
Sheriff Hutton said the first responsibility rests with parents to supervise children on the Internet and to stop online behavior that's inappropriate and possibly illegal.
When bullying goes digital, it can be tough to stop, said Dave Marcus, director of security research for McAfee Labs of Santa Clara, Calif., a national research firm providing security technology for digital users.
"Kids are kids," Marcus said. "They'll gang up on people in the schoolyard, and they'll do the same through the digital media."
It's a problem so pervasive that Orput is developing guidelines to help parents keep kids safe online from sexting, cyber-bullying and child predators.
"We have to get on top of it today," he said. "It's different than the playground bullying; it's more pernicious because when somebody hurts people online, it doesn't go away. We're alarmed."
Joy Powell 651-925-5038