Boasts about sexual conquests on a now-deleted Web page could trigger felony charges against a popular Rogers High School student athlete and others, the latest twist in a swirl of accusations, comments and protest involving social media.
The furor in the Elk River Area School District on Tuesday transcended the dispute over a controversial tweet by the student and exposed the sexually explicit and often vicious exchanges that fill popular online pages created by students at many Minnesota schools. The anonymous posts include bragging messages, accusations and insults directed at students, teachers and others.
Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen said the “Rogers Confessions” page on ask.fm attracted many such “sexually charged” submissions. Some referred to a physical education teacher at the high school who was also the target of a Twitter exchange several days ago that led to a more-than-two-month suspension of senior Reid Sagehorn. Sagehorn, the 17-year-old captain of the school’s football and basketball teams, is accused of tweeting, apparently sarcastically, that he “actually, yes” was in an improper relationship with her. “It’s like screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater or ‘I have a bomb’ on an airplane,” Beahen said Tuesday of the possible felony charges, not long after supporters of Sagehorn held a protest outside the school. “If you say something on a very public forum, there are consequences. This young, innocent teacher is the victim here.”
In response to Sagehorn’s tweet, the 28-year-old teacher “was called in and interviewed by officers,” the chief said. “We didn’t find that the involvement occurred.”
The chief lamented that “no one seems to care about the teacher … and that’s a sad experience. She’s, frankly, being bullied and harassed by students.”
Elk River Area Schools Superintendent Mark Bezek said he agrees. “The teacher involved, she did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said. “In the cyberworld, she’s getting crucified. Our staff members wonder: ‘Is this going to happen to me?’ ”
But many students, including junior Baylee Waldhoff, who wore a “Free Reid” shirt to school Tuesday, say Sagehorn’s punishment was too severe.
“Everybody knew he was kidding,” Waldhoff, 16, said of Sagehorn’s tweet. “What the school has done has gotten way out of hand.”
Other suspensions are possible. Bezek said two other students admitted to officials Tuesday that they were involved in creating the “sexually explicit” page that triggered the controversy.
Bill Hjertstedt, whose Elk River Education Association counts 850 union members in the district, said the teacher has continued to report for work in what he described as “definitely not a good environment … but there have been days she has not been at the school, and the administration recognizes that and has been supportive.”
Hjertstedt said his association is providing legal counsel and emotional support to the teacher, who declined to be interviewed.
“Our teachers’ rights representative has been in contact with her on a daily basis,” he said. “This is a very difficult situation through no action of her own. … Teachers are sometimes in a position of losing their careers over false information. We have to be very careful about that.”
Ugly claims put online
Beahen said the “Rogers Confessions” page on ask.fm was open for anyone to participate in anonymously and contained “multiple postings from people saying, ‘I had sex with a cheerleader at a party last night’ ” or other, more graphic claims.
Ask.fm is a freewheeling social networking website where users can ask others questions, usually anonymously.
“In the midst of all that,” the chief continued, the page addressed the alleged relationship between Sagehorn and the teacher. Beahen said that one comment on the site said, “ ‘It’s true. It really happened.’ ”
The chief said: “That’s a crime. It just wasn’t a tweet that went from Jimmy to John. It got up on this anonymous website where people weren’t supposed to use names.”
In addition to these types of anonymous posts on ask.fm, students at many high schools in Minnesota have set up their own versions of “confessions” Twitter handles. These accounts publicly call out students and teachers, sometimes by name, and often allude to sexual escapades, complain about teachers and include disparaging comments about people’s looks. The accounts, which go by names such as @612confessions or @MNHSfessions, are run by individual students and accept submissions from others. They are difficult to track, springing up and being deleted at will.
Beahen said Tuesday that police “got a lead this morning as to who created” the page. He said the lead does not point to Sagehorn, but added that Sagehorn also could be charged for his tweet.
A felony charge would be applicable if someone is accused of saying something that is “criminally harmful,” Beahen said. “You have to prove intent, [that the accused] was fully aware that harm would occur,” he said.
Alternatively, a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct might be filed, the chief said. “We’ll let the county attorney decide.”
Police have turned the case over the Hennepin County attorney’s office for consideration of charges.
Sagehorn was originally suspended for five days following his tweet, then the suspension was extended to 10 days, then about two months, Bezek said.
An online petition in defense of Sagehorn has drawn several thousand signatures. And some took to Twitter, using the hashtag #freereid, to express support for him.
Bezek, who planned to meet with Sagehorn’s family late Tuesday, said, “From what I understand, it’s a good family, a good kid. … He made a bad mistake here.”
He said technology is a powerful educational tool that “can also cause so much harm. We’ve just given it to them without the proper training. You don’t let a kid drive a car, shoot guns without the proper training.”