Girl's parents say Facebook comments scared daughter

2012-04-26T18:20:00Z 2012-06-12T11:37:10Z Girl's parents say Facebook comments scared daughterBy Sarah Tompkins sarah.tompkins@nwi.com (219) 836-3780 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | While the American Civil Liberties Union is claiming three teenagers' Facebook posts about killing people from their middle school were a joke, some parents said they aren't laughing.

Timothy Tinsley and Regina Webb said their daughter was among the students and staff members named on Facebook as people the teenage girls supposedly wanted to kill. They said she was so scared she missed about two days of school.

"Any child should feel safe going to school," Webb said. "No child should have to stay home."

On Wednesday, the ACLU filed a civil suit in federal court against Griffith Public Schools claiming it violated the teenagers' First Amendment Rights when it expelled the girls for the comments.

The virtual conversation, which lasted more than two hours and spanned more than 70 posts, began with one girl venting about cutting her leg while shaving. Some excerpts of comments that led to their eventual expulsion include:

Girl 1: I would say kill all the ugly people at school than. But I don't wanna die.

Girl 3: I wanna kill people with a knife. But its easier to find out who did it .. So I gotta get a gun /:

Girl 2: iim gonna use my piink boxcutter. But paper towel around thee handle, so they cant take my fiinger priints.

Girl 1: its easier to find out who did it with a gun. And yes, homocidal means you want to kill people.

Webb brought a copy of the conversation to school officials at the end of January 2011. A police report was made, the girls were suspended, and in February after a school hearing they were expelled.

But University of Chicago clinical law professor Craig Futterman said expelling the teens so soon might not have been the best policy decision. While the comments were hurtful and should not be tolerated, he said intervention might have been a better tool in the long run.

"As strict as you want to be, all kids are going to say stupid things," Futterman said. "And you might imagine, 15 years ago this conversation might have occurred in some bedroom at a sleepover and nothing would ever come of it. ... And if we treat every misbehavior as a potentially life-threatening situation, we're going to create bad policy."

Futterman also said he thought the ACLU would be fighting an uphill battle on the First Amendment claim, because hate speech is not protected under the U.S. Constitution and the words could be interpreted as intent to do harm. Moreover, schools can regulate speech within their setting more so than can be done in public, he said.

But in this case, Futterman said an element that could come into play is that the messages were posted outside school hours, on personal devices.

According to a copy of an expulsion letter obtained by The Times, a school official said one of the girls was not up for expulsion "due to bullying but rather the harassing and intimidating comments made," which the school handbook forbids.

"The school has a duty to provide a safe environment for its staff and students," wrote Aron Borowiak, the school's expulsion examiner. "Her actions created an unsafe environment for the students and staff of Griffith Middle School."

But the mothers of the teens who were expelled said Wednesday that their girls have a sarcastic sense of humor and never intended to hurt anyone.

Tabitha Fortier said her daughter was joking about having to get rid of evidence by putting it in a tub of acid, because her teenager watches too much TV.

"None of us agree with what they're doing or chatting about," Fortier said. "(But) these girls were just having a conversation, talking and laughing amongst themselves."

But experts say social media like Facebook can blur the line between what is public and what is private online. While the girls only had the conversation visible to their friends, Kevin McElmurry, assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University Northwest, said the tools for keeping things private are not effective.

"They might as well have been standing in the middle of the lunchroom yelling this stuff," McElmurry said.

McElmurry said with social media, the rules are unclear as to what is reasonable and what is not. And without emotional nuances like facial expressions, tone of voice and hand gestures, it can be easy to be misunderstood.

"We've tried to create these stand-ins for emotional nuance like emoticons and little abbreviations like LOL ... but these are ultimately poor substitutions to what comes naturally when we're talking face to face or even on the telephone," he said.

Regardless of the use of emoticons to balance the tone of the written word, Tinsley said reading about how girls wanted to light his daughter on fire with gasoline was not funny.

"This is disturbing," Tinsley said. "To me, this is premeditation of murder."

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