Originally created 02/22/99

Student 'bashboard' sends schools back to drawing board



The messages made her cheeks burn. They ridiculed her weight. They cruelly sabotaged her girlfriends' reputations. Then, someone posted a message saying a bomb would go off in a Kennedy High School cafeteria soda machine, forcing students to evacuate for several hours Jan. 11. Embarrassment dissolved to anger.

"I felt it went too far," said the Kennedy High School sophomore from Bellmore, N.Y., who did not want her name used. "It's tearing people apart ... People are in school crying all the time. It's embarrassing people."

The messages were posted on a "bashboard," an Internet bulletin board created by students outside of school. On bashboards, students unleash largely anonymous, lewd, viscious or racist rants and rumors about each other and teachers, often interspersed with pornography. Sometimes, invective degenerates into words that could be construed as threatening, harassing, or at the very least, humiliating.

Faced with distraught students, some districts have taken steps to remove bashboards from cyberspace altogether. But it remains unclear whether they possess the authority to do that, or to punish students who take part on their own time, lawyers and state education officials say.

"It's a tough one for us," said Randolph Ross, principal of Great Neck (N.Y) South High School, which has had several bashboards. "It's tough for us to figure out how to protect our kids from this kind of assault and at the same time figure out how to protect their civil liberties."

State education officials note that schools do have authority to discipline students for behavior outside school that disrupts students or teachers in school, such as an after-school fight. But whether bashboards fall into that category remains unclear, they said.

"This is highly new territory, and there's certainly no state statute with regard to that," said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for the New York Education Department. "There is no legal precedent for any of this."

In murky legal waters, school administrators are searching for ways to deal with the cyberspace invective they say seems fiercer, somehow, than old-fashioned insults.

"Technology brings everything to greater heights," said Steve Witt, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association on New York's Long Island. "It makes it very difficult for the school."

The anonymity of bashboards makes it even more difficult. Usually, no one knows who is posting messages, and getting that information is difficult, especially because some Internet service providers pledge user-confidentiality.

After the bomb threat at Kennedy High School , school officials and police managed to ferret out the student who created the bashboard, though they are uncertain who posted the bomb threat. District spokeswoman Kate Collins said the student "voluntarily" removed the bashboard, hosted by InsideTheWeb.com, but another one took its place.

When Great Neck South principal Ross discovered a bashboard several weeks ago, he blocked it from school computers. And on Martin Luther King Day, he ditched his speech on life in the '60s for one on the cowardliness of anonymous insults.

District officials then went a step further.

They contacted InsideTheWeb.com and, citing the company's user policy against profanity, "requested" that the bashboard be removed. The company complied, but within days, other bashboards appeared.

"They're like weeds," said Ross.

InsideTheWeb.com, of Hurleyville, N.Y., one of many companies offering free bulletin boards, could not be reached for comment. But Marc Epstein, technology director for the Great Neck district, said the company told him it was difficult to monitor every bulletin board because they have hundreds.

School officials believe they are within their right to take steps to have bashboards removed, however ineffective the approach may be. And Ross emphasized that school officials did not banish the bashboard, but only requested that InsideTheWeb.com do so.

"Of course we had our own agenda, which I think is legitimate," he said. "Whether a court of law would allow us to sue them to do that, I don't know. I doubt if we'd win."

Ann Beeson, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, doubted that school officials would get courts to allow bashboard bans.

"It would be the same thing as, in some ways, any government official going into a bookstore and removing certain books off the shelf," she said. "And I think we'd all agree that that is a pretty classic example of censorship."

Students also know the difference between a threat and a constitutionally protected insult, as one message posted on a new Kennedy High School bashboard suggests. "This page has been designed solely for the purpose of people trashing each other," it reads. "Please don't make any ridiculous bomb threats, so this site will not be shut down. Thanks."

Legal issues aside, parents and teachers may be exaggerating the problem in the first place, said Robert Schrag, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University.

"So maybe when we were growing up it was a fence and a piece of chalk," he said. "Well, the Internet is their fence and piece of chalk."

And relatively speaking, Schrag said, bashboards get no more attention than graffiti ever did.

"Parents and administration may be doing inadvertently exactly the wrong thing to call attention to them," he said.

Several students interviewed shared the attitude.

"I think it's just a phase the school is going through or the district is going through," said Darryl Sneag, 17, a senior at Great Neck South. "Eventually people will get bored with it."

Darryl also suggested that "bashing" each other may not be a student problem, but a human one.

"I guess with shows like `Jerry Springer,' people like to hear outrageous things about each other even though they know they're not true," he said. "They still think it's entertaining."