School Climate & Safety

Students Create Fake Online Profiles to Bully Peers

By Michelle R. Davis — April 03, 2012 6 min read
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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

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