Gossip Web site jolts Marysville-Pilchuck high school

MARYSVILLE — A Web site that invites people to anonymously post gossip about each other is creating problems at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.

In the past week, students have used the site to bully, post compromising photos of their rivals and spread rumors about other kids’ supposed sexual experiences, abortions, eating disorders, diseases and drug use. Many of the messages have been viewed thousands of times.

At least two students who have been the subject of the gossip mill are afraid to go to school anymore. Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller has personally talked with parents of five students about the site.

“I was horrified by what I saw,” Miller said. “This is outrageous.”

On Thursday the Marysville School District posted a letter on its Web site alerting parents.

“We’ve given people a forum to say what they want to say,” said Elizabeth Bloch, 25, one of the founders of the company that runs the Web site. “It’s not up for us to censor them. If a user thinks some piece of information — however nasty or … embarrassing, is true — that’s their prerogative to let the world know about it.”

The site was created in June in Wilmington, N.C., by four friends who enjoyed gossip and online social networking, Bloch said.

The friends were working part-time jobs, trying to make ends meet, when they came up with the idea to start a Web site to let users post gossip-ridden profiles of other people, she said.

Their site has no legal or ethical responsibility to protect kids by censoring gossip, said Bloch, who said she graduated in 2005 from State University of New York at Albany with a communications degree.

The site also is about teaching responsibility, Bloch said. If enough users complain about a piece of gossip and label it “BS” or “not gossip,” it will eventually be taken down, she said.

However, the site’s staff — the founders and their intern — will not remove gossip just because it may be a lie or hurtful, she said. It’s a way of keeping the subject of the gossip in line with community standards of social behavior, she said.

“If it’s not a lie, there has to be some sort of accountability in that person’s life,” Bloch said.

Around 1,500 of the site’s 50,000 registered users are from Marysville, Bloch said. Most of the Marysville users have joined in the past several days. After school Thursday, there were more than 200 gossip profiles of Marysville teens on the Web site.

Some Marysville students have used the gossip site to rate each others’ performance in bed, call each other derogatory names and list sex acts individual students allegedly participated in. They question others’ sexuality, post unflattering pictures and ridicule others’ physical handicaps.

Families aren’t spared, as some posts talk about parents’ alleged affairs.

“We have a couple of examples of young people who are really, really hurt, as I can totally understand,” said Tracy Suchan Toothaker, principal at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. “And as a parent and an educator you cry.”

The district will take disciplinary action against any student who it can prove puts something on the Web that hurts another student, Miller said.

“If we could find out who, we would take action,” she said. “It is part of bullying, harassment and intimidation. We can take action on that and we will.”

Tracking down students who can use pseudonyms to put gossip online is “almost impossible,” said Ken Ainsworth, the school district’s technology director.

“It’s frustrating because we can’t do anything to protect the children,” Ainsworth said. “I think there is an expectation among parents that we can do more than we are actually capable of doing.”

The district has blocked the Web site from district computers, but most of the entries are made outside of school hours.

School district officials urged parents to check up on their students’ computer usage to make sure they aren’t posting something that will hurt others.

“If you don’t supervise your children, you don’t know what they are doing,” Ainsworth said. “It’s not that they are bad kids, but kids make bad choices sometimes.”

Police would investigate if death threats were posted or if students complained about cyber-bullying, Marysville police Cmdr. Ralph Krusey said.

Despite its questionable content, the site is probably legally protected, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, media law attorney at Allied Law Group in Seattle.

Even if someone were physically harmed as a result of something posted on the site, the company probably wouldn’t be legally liable, she said. That’s because a federal statute makes chat rooms immune, and case law addressing online slander is still in its infancy.

There’s more recourse against those doing the posting.

Individuals can be sued for libel if they knowingly post gossip online that is false and hurts someone’s reputation, she said.

Whenever Web gossip sites receive negative publicity, angry people rally to change laws designed to protect free speech, but they need to remember the purpose of the First Amendment, Earl-Hubbard said.

“If you hadn’t had freedom for unpopular messages, I think a lot of social change wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “You have to represent and support the guy in the corner with the crazy message, because he’s the one it was designed to protect.”

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should, said Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“When sites allow anonymous postings, it allows individuals to hide while they shoot flaming arrows at others,” he said. “Ethically that’s not justifiable.”

Even after the site removes postings, people may still be able to access them using search engines that save cached versions of pages. The gossip that is posted on this site today may continue to haunt kids for years, Steele said.

“This kind of gossip is really vile and vindictive and serves no legitimate purpose in our society,” he said. “It feeds the prurient interest of individuals who either create the gossip or read it — and it leaves a lot of road kill in terms of people who are harmed.”

Bloch said she wasn’t qualified to discuss how things said on her Web site might affect teens struggling with self-esteem issues. No one has ever posted negative gossip about her online, she said.

She said she’s read many of the comments Marysville-Pilchuck High School students have written about each other in postings called “g-strings.”

“One of the coolest things is that these users speak really intelligently,” she said. “There is some stuff that is not great, and some stuff that is really well written.”

Reporter Eric Stevick contributed to this story.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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