Ten Coon Rapids High School students have been suspended after a volley of harassing comments and threats on Facebook, the latest in a string of incidents that have jolted the Anoka-Hennepin School District over the past couple of years.
The online dispute, which involved students posting invective and obscenity-laced insults, escalated into a shouting match on a stairway at the school Tuesday before teachers intervened. The students, who have not been identified, are serving three- to 10-day suspensions, said district spokesman Brett Johnson.
Although the district is facing a lawsuit and a federal investigation over allegations of student harassment based on sexual orientation, none of the Facebook exchanges was related to the students' sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or any of the district's other protected classifications, said Johnson and Coon Rapids Principal Annette Ziegler.
District officials did not go into details of the Facebook entries, which have been deleted. They said only that while the insults were serious enough to warrant disciplinary action, they did not require police involvement.
The problem of online threats and harassment extends far beyond Anoka-Hennepin and Minnesota.
According to a Pew Research Center study released last week, 88 percent of teens who use social media said they have witnessed cruelty on cyber sites, and 15 percent said they have been the target of online bullying.
Last year in Minnesota, there were 66 reported cyberbullying incidents resulting in at least one day's suspension from school, up from 40 the year before.
Officials cautioned, however, that there might have been other incidents that were either not reported or did not result in suspension.
The Anoka-Hennepin district has put a focus on anti-bullying efforts this year, including staff training that stresses increased vigilance and communication. Tuesday's episode occurred not long after students watched a video about online etiquette.
District officials said there did not appear to be clear-cut perpetrators or victims in this situation, that all of them engaged in name-calling or threats. The length of suspension depended on the extent of each student's involvement, and on his or her disciplinary history, district officials said.
One of the 10 students, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was suspended for a vulgar remark he posted in defense of a friend.
'Like reading a book'
Ziegler said three juniors and seven seniors (eight boys and two girls) were involved in the mostly online altercation.
Students were cooperative when taken into interviews with administrators, she said.
"Their phones were in their hands" and open to the Facebook page in question, she said. From there, it wasn't difficult to pinpoint responsibility.
"This is like reading a book. You can easily track what the students are saying," Ziegler said.
Teachers and administrators can't monitor demeaning or bullying behavior that occurs off campus.
Anoka-Hennepin district policy draws the line at where behavior affects the learning environment. In addition to Tuesday's shouting match, some of the Facebook activity occurred during school hours.
After school Thursday, students said the incident had been widely discussed. "A lot of us, we felt it was unfair that these students were marked as bullies," said Joey Gadbois, who is friends with some of those who were suspended.
Others said they didn't know exactly what had transpired.
Ryan Ballweber said a news report Wednesday sent him to the logical next source: Facebook. He and others said students were posting opinions about the incident -- and arguing each side online.
Courtney Von Vett said she was disturbed by the tone of those posts, noting that some included the kind of insults that led to the suspensions in the first place.
University of Minnesota Prof. Shayla Thiel-Stern, who has written about youth and new media, said "the temptation is there to be different online."
"Sometimes it can cause them to be more aggressive, and give in to the darker side of their nature," she said.
Students at Coon Rapids agreed.
"When people are on social networking sites or text messaging, you almost feel like you're stronger," said Seyi Agboola. "You would say something you wouldn't be able to say in person."
Some students were surprised that anyone was making a big deal out of the incident, because students are cruel to each other online all the time. "Everyone at some point ... is a target of cyberbullying," said Stephanie Larson.
"The only reason it's getting so much attention is because people are getting in trouble," added Charlotte Kuntz.
Nancy Riestenberg, state school climate specialist, said parents should have explicit conversations with their kids about behavior on the Internet, because it is not behavior that is naturally modeled, the way other manners are.
"No one stands over their mom's shoulder while she writes an e-mail or posts on Facebook."