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Worthington school, police shut down bullying Twitter account

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WORTHINGTON -- Worthington District 518 Administrator John Landgaard has half a page of hand-written names of high school students and graduates who played some role in a Twitter account established Monday that was used to spread gossip about WHS classmates.

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The page, which appeared on Twitter's public forum as WHSTrojanGossip, was created early Monday afternoon by an unnamed person or group of people. With the work of high school administration and law enforcement, the site was closed to public viewing by midnight.

Landgaard said this is the first time, to his knowledge, that a site was deliberately established to essentially bully fellow students. Even though school is not in session, he said, he had a duty to see the site removed.

Repercussions from the incident are yet uncertain, but Landgaard said formal charges will be pursued. The incident could also lead to civil suits and, if it carries into the school year, potential expulsion for those involved.

By the time the site was suspended to public viewing late Monday night, more than 90 posts had been made about WHS students and graduates -- many of them sexually explicit, derogatory and simply untrue.

"There's always been some type of kids treating other kids poorly, but now, with this type of media, it's immediate," Landgaard said Wednesday morning.

After learning of the Twitter site on Monday, Landgaard worked with WHS Principal Paul Karelis and Worthington Police Sergeant/Detective Kevin Flynn to get the account suspended.

"The only way you can address the Twitter site is ... to go through the police -- they have to file a report," Landgaard said. "Thank goodness our police department is very proactive, very aggressive on this. (Flynn) deserves a lot of credit to help curtail what is going on."

Flynn contacted Twitter's law enforcement investigative group as soon as he was informed of the site.

"It's their job to review the site," he said. "If they find anything offensive, they react to that."

With the site removed from the public forum, Flynn said law enforcement is interested in "talking to anybody who would have information on what took place" and getting information to the county attorney's office.

Landgaard said those involved could face charges related to harassment, terroristic threats and slander. Civil suits could come forth from families of those who were the subject of Tweets, the up-to-140-character quips Twitter users post on the social network.

"That's the part these kids don't understand," he said. "If they make these statements, true or not, some people believe they're true. Consequently they not only put themselves in a potential lawsuit or legal action, but they also put their parents in that.

"Since we live in a farming community, I'm not sure their parents would be too excited to lose the farm," he added. "I'm being a little harsh, but this thing really has me irritated."

In the 48 hours since the site was discovered, Landgaard said he's talked to several students and some parents as well. He said parents were not only surprised by some of the comments made, but "totally appalled."

"It comes down to, as parents, we're responsible for monitoring our kids and what they do," he said. "We can't always stop poor decisions, but we can help teach them and educate them. It's our job as parents to be responsible and check on what they're doing.

"Quite honestly, according to this, a lot of parents need to wake up and start checking on their kids, whether they're 14 years old or 20 years old," he added. "We're stepping in and doing what we can do because it's the right thing to do. We don't want kids bullied or harassed. We have a very strict policy related to that, and if we catch kids, kids are in trouble."

Still, Landgaard realizes school is not in session, and schools aren't responsible for kids 24-7, 365 days a year.

"If it affects our school year, we have a right to address all of it," he said. "I know for a fact some of these kids aren't seeing this as a joke and they're taking it very personally.

"Every kid is going to make some mistakes -- some more severe than others. That's how they learn and get experiences, but when they've crossed this line, this has gone way too far."

Landgaard said there isn't any specific curriculum in the school to address the harms of cyberbullying, although health courses provide education on how to treat others. The issue is discussed "constantly in many forms" in other classes, he added.

"Kids and adults, when you go on a golf course, either somebody teaches you etiquette or it's pretty well understood there's etiquette for being a golfer or on a golf course," Landgaard said. "That's the way it should be with our phones and the use of technology -- there's implied behaviors, use and expectations."

Parents have tools they can use if their teens abuse technology, and Landgaard said it's easy to take away cell phones and other forms of communication.

"We've become a society (where) we like to have the cell phones for convenience ... but that didn't exist 20-30 years ago and we all managed to survive," he said.

Landgaard isn't opposed to social media, adding that when it is used properly, it can provide benefits to teens and adults.

"The worst part is kids don't understand the permanency and how this has long-term effects to what might be their goals in the future," he said. "You can Google anybody and get a lot of information in a short period of time. ...You just have to remember that not everything you Google and pull up on the Internet is true."

The WHSTrojanGossip Twitter account wasn't the only one of its kind to be created and it probably won't be the last. Landgaard said a similar incident happened with Jackson County Central, and within hours of the WHS account, a copycat account had been created for Murray County Central. That account has also been suspended.

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