Tahlequah Daily Press

November 1, 2013

Anti-social media?

‘Confession’ Twitter accounts are causing friction among local students, parents and school officials

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — For generations, students have passed gossip and rumors about one another in the school halls, often with unintended and hurtful consequences.

Today, students can easily gossip about whomever with choose, with whomever they wish, and anytime they want – thanks to social media.

Twitter has become a hotbed for “confession” accounts followed by students of specific schools and colleges across the nation. An account is usually set up anonymously by one student, then quickly followed by hundreds more.

Such accounts can be constructive forums, but frequently they degenerate into rude romper rooms of insults and hearsay. A degree of anonymity can embolden students to write something they might never say out loud. Some “tweets” are sexually charged, while others could be deemed libelous by a court of law.

“The one account I’ve heard about, a student set it up hoping it would be a positive thing,” said Dr. Marilyn Dewoody, superintendent of Hulbert Public Schools. “However, it didn’t work out that way. It got so bad, the student decided to close it down. We were pleased with the decision.”

On Twitter, there is an account named “hulbert confess” which received its most recent tweet on Wednesday evening. There is also an “nsu confessions” for Northeastern State University students.

For Keys, there is “gossip_cougar,” which at a glance seems more tame than many confessional Twitter accounts. Some followers are even whining about the deficiency of dirt.

Tahlequah Public Schools officials are monitoring several Twitter accounts that are followed mostly by high school students.

“We aren’t prepared to comment on any specific accounts because we are still investigating this,” said Lisa Presley, TPS superintendent. “I can say that we are most concerned about the possibility of bullying and harassment between students, and we will follow district policy while dealing with this.”

Though the district is not commenting, it appears Twitter itself may have closed a couple of accounts: @tquah_confessions has not received a tweet since Wednesday, and @thsconfess logged its most recent tweet on Tuesday. As deadline approached for Friday’s Press, a new confessional Twitter account  was opened under a similar moniker, @thequah_confess. Within minutes, it had already amassed nearly a dozen followers.

Some tweets are shockingly explicit

Daily Press news staff members were monitoring those accounts while researching this story. Several students – including some who openly identified themselves – posted lewd descriptions of their body parts and comments about sexual acts they’d like to perform with other students, or even teachers. Many were shockingly explicit in nature. Attacks, in the form of cyber-bullying, were also launched against other students.

As far as school policy, the cybernetic ether is a difficult medium in which to enforce policy. An account can spring up as quickly as another is closed. The colossal volume of information prevents Twitter from closely monitoring all accounts, but if notified, the company may close accounts with tweets that might be interpreted as defamatory.

Legally, a tweet that states something false as fact about a person could be classified as libelous.

While there is dispute about what meets the definition of libel in the social media arena, there is little disagreement that a tweet can be defamatory.

More immediate for students is whether a tweet can be deemed harassment or bullying by a district or the state. Oklahoma has anti-bullying guidelines that schools must follow, and districts may further augment the regulations.

Schools can intervene in cyber-bullying if it is disruptive to instruction or causes anxiety sufficient to interfere with a student’s focus on class or activities. Any threats of violence can bring school intervention.

The Tahlequah and Hulbert school district websites allow students to report instances of bullying or harassment, but Presley and Dewoody each said students can also seek help on campus.

“If a student believes he or she is being bullied, they can contact the principal or the school counselor,” Presley said.

“Teachers can also help. We take reports of bullying very seriously.”