Before bathroom walls became virtual, a can of Lysol and a stiff brush could remove the nasty and vulgar insults that anonymous bullies scrawled from time to time.
Gossip was still gossip. The words still stung. And targets of the graffiti could, if they were aware of it, be humiliated. But not everyone in the world — literally, the world — could read these slurs with a click of the computer mouse. Today, Lysol won’t help.
Like my counterparts around the country, I have been confounded by this new and evolving phenomenon in which high school and college students use new technologies as tools for cruelty. Make no mistake. These tools have the power to destroy.
Certainly the tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who had apparently been cyberbullied, illustrates technology’s uncivil misuse at its extreme. In Clementi’s case, his Rutgers roommate surreptitiously streamed video on the Internet of Clementi's sexual encounter with a man in their residence hall room.
Compared with the Rutgers’ case, websites that permit and promote anonymous postings on any topic and of any nature -- including gossip, rumor and innuendo -- may seem tame. But to those who are targeted, they are anything but tame, and I believe we must confront them.
I, like colleagues at peer institutions, have dealt with such websites in recent years. We have had to consider how we can combat cowardly individuals who hide behind the anonymity the Internet permits and make unimaginably vile comments, often aimed at one of any university’s most vulnerable populations: first-year female students. These posts name the students; the posters lurk unnamed in the cybershadows.
The women are, understandably enough, humiliated by what the bullies have written about them and are horrified that their classmates might be reading these posts. Their parents are furious.
On the students’ behalf, we asked one site’s owner to remove the most graphic and disgusting posts. The owner informed us that federal law was on his side and that we had no business inserting ourselves in this matter. He assured us that he didn’t condone such material and would remove the posts — but only if the women themselves made the request. Our students then followed the site’s procedures to have material about them removed. The site eventually honored some, though not all, of the students’ requests. Much of the damage, however, had already been done.
Meanwhile, the owner asserted that the problem lies not with his site but with those individuals who post such objectionable material.
Given current laws, we cannot really protect our students from these attacks. But we are, first and foremost, an educational institution that seeks to instill and foster respect and civility within our community. Such cyberbullying is antithetical to our values, so we are obligated to speak out against it.
Last year we launched an aggressive anti-cybergossip campaign. We posted banners in the student union and posters around campus. We took out ads in the student newspaper. We raised the issue with our student leaders and included the issue in student orientation.
And this summer I went directly to our students and parents for their help, writing a letter to them about our recent experience with sites promoting anonymous gossip. That letter read, in part: "If you know of anyone who is using this website to malign fellow students, please do not remain silent…. If you know of a student who is being targeted on this website, please direct that person to me so that we can provide support. We firmly believe that the majority of our students recognizes such reprehensible behavior is inconsistent with our values of civility."
We even took the unprecedented step of blocking from our computer network the site with the postings about the first-year women. As a practical matter, blocking access from our computer network could not keep people away from the site. We knew that. But we also decided that we had to take a stand, at least, symbolically.
The situation we confront and the sad story at Rutgers are connected by what technology makes possible. Bullies and gossips are not new, but the anonymity afforded by this technology emboldens them. When they write on bathroom walls, the audience is limited. Now they hide behind their computers and brazenly hurl insults that travel around the world through the Internet.
In facing this new challenge, we must, first and foremost, support students who may be the victim of such activity. Beyond that, we should be consistent in telling our students that posting anonymous comments about others is neither clever nor harmless but can have serious consequences. Most of all, we can’t ignore this issue or hope others will provide solutions for us. As educators, we must seize this opportunity to make a difference.
Dawn Watkins is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Washington and Lee University,