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Online Gossip Site Goes Too Far

An Internet gossip site frequented by high school students is at the center of a threatened attack on students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. But this is not the first time the site, peoplesdirt.com, is at the center of controversy.

The site thrives on students posting rumors about each other. It's a forum site broken down by state, county, type of schools such as colleges and high schools, and finally individual schools. It was first shut down in December, reports The Gazette's Bradford Pearson. That's when police found a user-posted photo on it of a topless underage teen girl, Pearson was told by Det. John Reinikka of the Montgomery County's family crimes division. A second two-day shutdown occurred in March.

Much of the site's traffic comes from Montgomery County, Pearson notes. "We’ve blocked it [from school access computers] because it violates the childhood Internet protection act," says Montgomery County Schools spokesperson Kate Harrison, who asked whether I could access it -- which I easily can. "What happens outside the school arena is not necessarily our purview." Harrison notes that she's heard things on the site that are pretty vulgar.

I began watching the site a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed an anonymous posting about it on DC Urban Mom. It's registered to Alfredo Castillo of Colorado City, Colo. I then consulted a few folks about it including a teacher who encouraged me to tell parents about it, and another, Jeff Steele of DC Urban Mom, who noted that the site will be happy to be written about because it will generate publicity. And no publicity, even if it casts something in a bad light, is bad, right? For this reason, I've chosen not to hyperlink the site.

The site itself is shocking. Some topics are printable here, such as "Sophomore Hotties" and "I'll pay $50 to help get this guy fired." Others are graphic in nature, using derogatory terms for women's anatomy or lesbians. Many, many high schoolers' names are posted in these lists. The Whitman post, begun at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday by whitmanarson and which is still live on the site, starts with "Killing A Few Whitman People." In the crude and vulgar post, whitmanarson, starts out:

"evry few years comes a guy fed up wit their skool is doin im dat person whitman is da school afta seein dis s%$t it jus pushed me ova da edge i WAS VERY CLOSE 2 continuin da colombine tradition las 4/20 on tht monday but smething made me rethink nd giv u anotha chance ..."

The post lists names of people and "security" for others to vote on who should be killed.

Maryland postings on the site far outnumber any other state, with Pennsylvania a distant second on the list. In terms of high schools, Clarksburg has the most postings in Montgomery County, followed by Gaithersburg and Watkins Mill high schools.

Site founder Alfredo Castillo, 23, said his site is protected by the First Amendment.

"It's freedom of speech, and everyone should be able to speak," he told Pearson. "There had to be a way where people could express their feelings and emotions anonymously."

Often when we talk about what we did as kids and letting our own kids do the same, it's not nearly as obscene and scary as this site. The question now is, can we as parents do anything about it? Is there a way to keep teens from posting each other's names along with crudeness and vulgarity on this site and any others like it? Is there a way to shut this down before someone gets truly hurt or kills themselves because of it?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 14, 2009; 2:55 PM ET  | Category:  Teens
Previous: To Snoop or Not to Snoop | Next: Boy Scouts Take Your Weight Seriously

Comments


Although I am not naturally litigious, this seems a clear cut case of something begging for a defamation lawsuit. There was a similar site about lawyers or law students that was shut down in such a way. Pro bono anyone?

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | May 14, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

"The question now is, can we as parents do anything about it? Is there a way to keep teens from posting each other's names along with crudeness and vulgarity on this site and any others like it? Is there a way to shut this down before someone gets truly hurt or kills themselves because of it?"

No, no, and no. There is nothing really new here-- people have been gossiping forever. Trying to shut this stuff down won't work.

Kids that have developed self-respect will give such gossip the weight it deserves-- zero.

Posted by: captiolhillmom | May 14, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

The former student who allegedly wrote the post has been arrested. He was in Tennessee so it may have been a fantasy not a real threat. However, if it was a real threat, aren't we lucky it was aired and discovered before the fact rather than as a horrible tragedy played out?

Posted by: Judy9 | May 14, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Whoa. I guess we're already bored with the who "sexting" charade, so now we've moved back to the equally ridiculous, but less interesting "Cyber Bullying" angle.

Can you guys come up with something else? It's hard to care about this.

I mean you tried hard with your amazing report that teenage boys use vulgar words for a woman's anatomy. I was shocked. I didn't know that sort of thing ever happened.

I'm guessing next week we'll hear about how teenage girls are often pressured by their boyfriends to have sex. And we'll have to act shocked.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | May 14, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

How do you stop it? Lawsuits. Nothing in the First Amendment gives anyone the right to spread lies about people -- and a website that publishes those lies is just as liable in defamation as the people who originally made the statements. So if you really want to shut it down, you need to organize a group of folks who were the target of false statements, and have them sue both the website and the individuals who made the statements.

Posted by: laura33 | May 15, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I've looked at my local school's forum on the site. This is what the average discussion looks like:
"*insert topic here* followed by "omg you're right i hate *insert name*" followed by "back the f*** off i love *insert name here*" followed by *ur all so gay* followed by *insert graphic descriptions of homosexuality*"

it's complete and utter nonsense.

Moreover, students who are profoundly affected (they become depressed, don't want to go to the school anymore, become suicidal) by what they see about themselves on this site are, frankly, emotionally weak. To the extent that they likely have serious self-esteem issues that could have easily been triggered by the simple experience of attending an American high school. Kids gossip. They slander. They are libelous. They will be so no matter what.
From a legal standpoint, I would find it very difficult to prove that this website is the factor which drove a child to severe emotional distress. 1)They chose to go on that website and read its contents 2)They could easily have been exposed to the same distressing information simply by being in the same school as these slanderers.

To the worried parents out there: Face it, kids are meanies. Your kids are at an age where they should be able to tough it out at this point. They've been in an environment of gossips, liars, libelers, and slanderers for most of their lives. This is nothing new for them. If this sort of thing makes your child truly troubled, they've got some things to work out. It's certainly not their fault. But it's the world we live in.

Posted by: j762 | May 17, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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