School Climate & Safety

Students Create Fake Online Profiles to Bully Peers

By Michelle R. Davis — April 03, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Two teenage girls were arrested in Florida and charged with cyberstalking after creating a fake Facebook page impersonating another student and using it to bully her. Students at an Indianapolis high school set up false Twitter accounts for their principal and tweeted offensive comments before the account was shut down.

And at a Minnesota middle school, someone created a false Facebook profile for a 6th grader and used it to make violent threats.

Students’ creation of fake online identities is forcing schools to deal with such behavior, which raises legal as well as school safety concerns. In fact, some behavior in such situations can now be deemed illegal under state cyberbullying laws or even cyber-impersonation and identity-theft laws.

Thirty-eight states have bullying laws that include a ban on “electronic harassment” in their provisions, and 14 states have laws that expressly prohibit cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, which tracks such legislation.

Some states, such as New Jersey, also have identity-theft laws that have been used in cases involving fake social-networking profiles, and California, New York, and Texas all have laws against cyber or digital impersonation.

While cyberbullying is often just an electronic form of such traditional bullying techniques as spreading rumors and teasing, “online impersonation is one of those new, creative ways to be really hurtful,” said Nancy E. Willard, a lawyer and the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, based in Eugene, Ore.

“Creating a fake identity for a harmful purpose would likely meet the standards of many of these statutes,” she said.

Murky Legal Issues

In February 2010, three students at Newburyport High School in Newburyport, Mass., created a fake Facebook page for a classmate and used it to post negative comments about other students. The victim was unaware of the profile until he was teased and confronted by other students at school, Principal Michael Parent said.

At the time, the school didn’t have a bullying policy that Mr. Parent believed allowed him to take action, since the fake profile was created off school grounds. As a result, the matter was referred to the Newburyport Police Department, and the students were ultimately charged with identity theft.

They received no school punishment, Mr. Parent said.

Since then, the school has devised a new “transition” program for freshmen—set to launch in the next school year—that emphasizes proper Internet etiquette and use of social networking.

In addition, Massachusetts has adopted a statewide bullying law that “makes it more clear that we have to investigate it,” Mr. Parent said of such online behavior. “It expands the role of the school to include off-site social media.”

But many school leaders and other educators are less certain of their reach when dealing with fake profiles on social-networking sites. Court rulings on such issues have been so murky that the National School Boards Association filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last year asking for clarification in cases in which cyberbullying constitutes “off-campus speech.”

The brief was in response to rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in two separate cases involving students who created fake social-networking profiles of school staff members. In both the J.S. v. Blue Mountain School Districtcase and the Layshock v. Hermitage School District case, the court ruled that punishments meted out against students by the schools were unconstitutional.

The NSBA, based in Alexandria, Va., argued in the brief that the increased use of social networking has led to “a stunning increase in harmful student expression that school administrators are forced to address with no clear guiding jurisprudence.” In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the cases.

Ms. Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use said schools can act when a fake social-networking profile—even one created off campus—causes a “substantial disruption” to a student’s education. The courts seem more inclined to allow administrators to take disciplinary action when a student, rather than an adult, is the victim of a fake profile, she said.

However, Ms. Willard cautioned, when tracing fake Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace profiles, schools must refer the situation to law enforcement if school officials need to find out through the social-networking site who created a fake profile.

“It’s against federal law for the websites to provide that type of identifying information,” she said. “If there is the potential of a criminal offense, law enforcement can issue a subpoena.”

That’s why it’s critical for schools to work with law-enforcement and mental-health officials to develop policies and procedures before such a situation occurs, Ms. Willard said.

Alternatives to Court

Students who create fake Facebook profiles are getting caught up in the criminal-justice system in a way that’s reminiscent of the student “sexting” incidents from a few years ago.

In some of those cases, teenagers who had texted nude or otherwise risqué photos of themselves to other students were charged under child-pornography laws, said Sameer Hinduja, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, which is based at Florida Atlantic University, in Jupiter.

Mr. Hinduja said applications of identity-theft laws in cases of fake Facebook profiles “overstep what the original laws for identity theft were written for.”

Some states, including Florida and New York, are now dealing with such cases in a way that avoids criminal penalties by funneling young offenders to alternative or “diversion” programs, away from the court system.

In the case of a fake Facebook page created by two Estero High School students in Florida about a year ago, for example, teenage girls were charged by local police under cyberstalking laws. But law enforcement then handed the case over to the Lee County human-services department’s Neighborhood Accountability Program, a “restorative justice” program for juvenile offenders, said Nora Donato-Hitchcock, the program coordinator and supervisor.

The case was dealt with more swiftly than it would have been in a juvenile court, Ms. Donato-Hitchcock said, and the focus was on improving the situation.

One of the Estero teenagers was required to make an anti-cyberbullying YouTube video. The other created a “Facebook for Dummies” flier of “do’s and don’ts” for an anti-bullying program.

Both students were required to apologize to the victim and ordered to stay off social-networking sites for a significant period of time, Ms. Donato-Hitchcock said.

Lessons Learned

Dealt with properly, such cases can provide a positive lesson, educators say.

Four years ago at Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska, several students created a MySpace page impersonating Principal Cyd Duffin. The students wrote, in the guise of the principal, that she didn’t like certain groups of students, including hearing-impaired and Asian students, and the site featured a fake photo of Ms. Duffin wearing Ku Klux Klan robes.

When Ms. Duffin alerted officials at MySpace, the company shut the page down, but refused to reveal who created it. Ms. Duffin then sued the company, but ultimately dropped the lawsuit after the students confessed to their actions.

The students who created the profile were not known as troublemakers, she said, and received only a short suspension.

But the incident forced the district to set clear policies around cyberbullying and fake social-networking profiles, and Ms. Duffin said she feels confident today when dealing with such issues.

Ms. Duffin has used the incident to teach other students about the pitfalls of such supposed pranks. Every year, she makes an appearance in a class called Cyber Law. Her case is the prime example.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Students Create Fake E-Profiles To Bully Peers

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety How a Superintendent Urged Parents to Discuss Gun Violence With Their Kids
The leader of the school district that serves Monterey Park, Calif., encouraged parents not to "let the TV do the talking."
5 min read
A woman comforts her son while visiting a makeshift memorial outside Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Authorities searched for a motive for the gunman who killed multiple people at the ballroom dance studio during Lunar New Year celebrations.
A woman comforts her son while visiting a memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., two days after a gunman killed 11 people and injured several others as they celebrated Lunar New Year.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety Guidance on Responding to Students' Questions About Shootings
A guide for educators on ways to foster a sense of safety and security among students at a time when gun violence seems widespread.
4 min read
People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting several days earlier at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year's celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community.
Two days after a mass shooting that killed 11 people, people gather for a vigil outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif. In the aftermath of shootings and other community violence, educators are called on to help students process their emotions and help them feel safe.
Ashley Landis/AP
School Climate & Safety Many Schools Don't Have Carbon Monoxide Detectors. Are They Overlooking the Risk?
Less than a quarter of states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings.
5 min read
Image of a carbon monoxide detector with a blurred blueprint in the background.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Students of Color Disproportionately Suffer From Police Assaults at School, Says Report
A new report tallies up assaults by school-based police officers on students of color.
6 min read
Deputy Carroll walks the hall of Rice Elementary School with an administrator on Wednesday.
A school police officer walks the halls of Rice Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C., with an administrator on April 6, 2022.
Lindsey Hodges/The Index-Journal via AP