Analyze a Cyberbullying Case

Project

Analyze a Cyberbullying Case

The following is a made-up cyberbullying case study for you to read, analyze, and discuss in your class. Although the case is not real, you could very well imagine something like this taking place.

Scenario

A 16-year-old girl by the name of Jenny Foster was found hitch-hiking along the Adirondack Mountains Highway in upstate New York. Mr. David Sykes, a driver on the highway, stopped to pick up the prospective passenger. Realizing that the hitch-hiker was a scared, shivering young girl who had just run away from home, he drove Jenny to the local police station, where his brother-in-law was a police officer. The officer, Lt. Todd Gallagher, provided Jenny with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. While recuperating, Jenny told the officer that she had run away from home and was on her way to New York, where she knew an old school friend was now living. She was going to stay with her for a few weeks while she found a job as a waitress. The police officer asked for Jenny’s home telephone number to call her parents. After a few attempts the officer was able to reach Jenny’s parents, who were frantically searching for her and calling her friends’ houses.

The officer assumed that she’d had a disagreement with her parents, but in Jenny’s case, it was quite the opposite: Jenny loved her parents but felt that nobody else loved her. When questioned why she had left home, Jenny cried and said, “I wish I was dead. I have been thinking about killing myself because my so-called friends told me that I’d be better off dead.” She also confided in them that Rachel, one of her former friends, had posted a message on Facebook stating that she would be happy to push Jenny into oncoming traffic to help her end her “pathetic life.” The police officer was startled by this and asked Jenny if she minded if he took notes. She responded that she had no problem with this. The police officer then said that he wanted to bring in another police officer, Det. Margaret Schultz, to accompany them. Jenny did not object, and Det. Schultz joined them. Jenny continued to talk about herself. She felt that she was different from everyone else in the class. She had no brothers or sisters, and her family had recently relocated to the area after her father had been laid off from his job as an electrician. She explained that her mother had a part-time job at Target and that her father was only getting handyman jobs here and there; it was a real struggle in their house to make ends meet.

The police officer asked why Jenny was so upset and felt so alone in the world. She explained that she was continually taunted by friends at school, but it hadn’t always been like that.

She proceeded to tell them that her mother used to be a secretary, but when her old company’s regional dealership folded, her boss had allowed her to take home the office computer. Luckily for Jenny (or unluckily, as it turned out), the family was able to access a Wi-Fi Internet connection. Therefore, like many teenagers, Jenny used Facebook after doing her homework, eating dinner, and washing up. She admitted that she spent a lot of time on the computer complaining about homework and chatting about boys in the class, mainly those on the school’s football team. She had befriended a group of girls who were cheerleaders for the team. However, Jenny was not part of the cheerleading squad. Jenny explained that another big difference between her and these girls was their economic situation. These girls all came from affluent homes, yet Jenny’s family was struggling to make ends meet.

According to Jenny, everything was great when she first started school, but then for no apparent reason, her friends started tormenting her. Everything started to go wrong after Jenny brought one of her friends over for dinner. Her friend was very surprised that Jenny lived in a small one-bedroom apartment and didn’t seem too happy that meatloaf and water was the menu for dinner. From that day on, Jenny noticed that things changed between her and her so-called friends. Gradually, the other girls began to say really hurtful things to Jenny. Now they knew that her family didn’t have a lot of money, so they purposely planned outings to expensive shops to buy clothes and made arrangements to go skiing, knowing that Jenny could not afford to join them. But things got worse when Jenny started going out with Brad Smalls, an 18-year-old senior who was the captain of the football team. Jenny explained to the officers that they had dated for a little while, but she had broken up with him because he had taken an inappropriate photograph of her with his BlackBerry and refused to delete it, despite her requests. One of the cheerleaders, Charlene Davis, found out that he had this picture and asked Brad to forward it to her cellphone and email, which he did. Soon the picture was all around the school. In fact, Jenny saw Charlene and Jillian making copies of the photograph in the school’s library but was too afraid to confront them or report them. (Students were allocated 150 copies every semester through their student ID card.) Within days, the picture was posted in the girls’ bathroom and in the boys’ football changing room. Jenny removed the picture from the girls’ bathroom but heard that the picture in the boys’ changing room stayed up for weeks. Jenny had hoped the football coach would take the picture down, but that was not the case. Eventually, the photo ended up on Facebook. Jenny told the officers she had been so embarrassed and humiliated that she had worn a hat and glasses to school so that people wouldn’t recognize her. She dreaded going to school so much that she would get physically ill in the mornings. She had always been an honor student, but because of all the terrible things that were happening to her, she couldn’t focus on her school work and even avoided going to class. She often ended up in detention on purpose so that she didn’t have to deal with those heartless cheerleaders.

Jenny shared with the officers that, one day, the cheerleaders asked her if she wanted to be friends with them again and go to the local diner for a milkshake. Jenny reluctantly agreed. Her initial instinct to not go with them had been correct: The trip to the diner had been a setup. She recounted the events of that afternoon: “They were all smoking, and the next thing I heard was ‘Now,’ and then they stubbed my head and arms with their cigarettes. I cried, ran home, and luckily didn’t have to answer any questions because my parents were still at work. I couldn’t sleep that night and cried all night. The next day, I saw the nurse. She asked me about the marks on my body, and I told her what had happened. I also asked her not to say anything. She agreed, and as far as I know, she never said anything to anyone.”

Jenny told the officers that, the day after the diner, she had received taunting text messages and emails about the incident. When she got home, there were messages on Facebook about how she should kill herself and how they would help her do it. “That’s when I read Rachel’s posting about pushing me into oncoming traffic,” Jenny told the officers. Her mother had come home one night and found Jenny in tears. Jenny had told her mother about the emails, cellphone texts, and postings on Facebook. She had showed her mother her Facebook page and the emails she had received through her Yahoo! account. Her mother had taken a screenshot of the Facebook messages and printed the emails. After her mother printed the emails, Jenny deleted all of them because she didn’t want to see them ever again. Jenny couldn’t show her mother all the harassing text messages because she had deleted them as soon as she had received them. “Anyway, my mother wouldn’t understand some of them because kids have a different language when texting—a language that adults simply don’t understand,” Jenny explained to the officers. She then proceeded to tell them that Brad had created a Facebook page about her, with that infamous photograph, and said Jenny liked to sleep around. Jenny broke down in tears as she said, “He even said that I was open to visits at my home and listed my address. I was sickened and very frightened.”

Jenny then continued with her story and said her mother had given the screenshots and printed emails to the assistant principal. At the meeting with the AP, Jenny not only mentioned the incident with the cigarettes, but also related how these students would trip her in the hallway, put chilies in her food, and pull her hair. “My mother was surprised and upset to hear all of this because I had never mentioned any of this before,” Jenny shared with the officers. Jenny also told them that she had been disappointed with the meeting because the assistant principal was not particularly interested in what had been happening to her. His response to Jenny’s allegations had been dismissive, to say the least: “I agree that these kids have been misbehaving, but this is 2010 and the world has changed—kids will say anything on Facebook. Look, they don’t have access to Facebook in the school, so we cannot be held responsible. What students do on their own time is not my business, and it’s actually your responsibility.” Jenny told the officers that her mother had shown the AP a couple emails in which her life had been threatened. Jenny remembered very clearly the AP’s response: “This isn’t really evidence because these are not actual emails. How do I know that someone didn’t edit these? Tell me the truth—when you were a kid, did you ever say ‘I wish so-and-so was dead’? Frankly, Mrs. Foster, I’m more concerned about your daughter, who keeps ending up in detention every other day.” Jenny also remembered that her mother was annoyed with her because she didn’t know about her frequent visits to detention, since she was working most evenings.

At that point, Jenny’s parents arrived at the police station. They were happy to see Jenny and thankful to the police officers, but when Jenny’s father heard that they had interviewed Jenny and taken notes, he was very upset and said to the officers, “You have no right to take a statement from my daughter. I know my rights, and you need the consent of her parents before questioning my daughter.” The detective explained to Jenny’s father that the conversation had been very informal, that she had just talked and they had listened. They reassured him that they only wanted to help. The detective told Jenny’s parents that she believed they should refer the matter to the district attorney’s office to determine whether there was a case against the students or the school.

Scenario Considerations (Items you may want to look up on the Internet to prepare you case)

  • Did the police act appropriately by taking notes while they waited for Jenny’s parents to arrive?
  • Did the police require parental consent before speaking to Jenny?
  • Were Jenny’s Miranda rights violated?
  • Was it a good idea to bring a detective into the same room?
  • Are the email printouts made by Jenny’s mother admissible as evidence in this case?
  • How could the emails be authenticated?
  • What, if any, objections could be raised regarding the admissibility of the emails?
  • Is the snapshot of the Facebook page admissible as evidence in this case?
  • Did the school act appropriately? Could they be found negligent?
  • Are Brad’s and the cheerleaders’ actions protected under the First Amendment?

Legal Action Taken by the Prosecution

The Farmville County District Attorney has decided to prosecute the following people:

  • Brad Smalls, senior (former boyfriend)
  • Charlene Davis, sophomore (and football cheerleader)
  • Rachel Vasquez, sophomore (and football cheerleader)
  • Jillian Kopley, sophomore (and football cheerleader)
  • The district attorney has also taken an extraordinary move to prosecute the school and its administrators.

Defendant Statements to the Media

School Spokesman Statement

“The school is shocked by the unprecedented charges against the school and its administration. The school is not responsible for the actions of its students after school hours. The incident of injury to the student occurred outside the school. The intimidating emails, text messages, and Facebook postings noted in this case were beyond our control and were never reported by the victim. It was only when we spoke to the victim’s mother that these transgressions came to light. We did issue a warning to the perpetrating students. With regard to the issue of a photo being posted in the football changing room, the football coach did not post any photos and is not liable for the posting of such images. The victim never mentioned this in our conversation; otherwise, we would have removed the image and the student responsible would have been suspended from school. The school’s administration now feels that they are the ones now being bullied. The school has very strict policies when it comes to bullying and has a zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. In summary, we were never a part of this the bullying and should not be singled out. In time, it will become clear that respect, honesty, and integrity are three principles that we live by. We will be proved innocent and our reputation will remain untarnished.”

Defense Attorney (Brad Smalls)

“My client’s name and reputation have been smeared. It will soon become apparent that Jenny Foster is a misguided child. Foster is relatively new to the area. Her poor parents were out working most evenings and were unable to supervise their daughter’s use of the Internet. This is a girl who simply wanted some attention. This case will demonstrate that Jenny Foster, a student who spends more time in detention and on Facebook than studying, needs some guidance and direction in her life, and I really hope that she gets better and gets the professional help that she needs. This case will never go to trial, and I hope that my client, an honor student, can get back to focusing on his studies as quickly as possible.”

Case and Evidence Considerations

  • Jenny Foster deleted her emails, and the email printouts are in some file in the assistant principal’s office. Can anything be done?
  • Could the school be found negligent? On what basis?
  • What charges do you think the district attorney would make against the school?
  • What charges do you think the district attorney would make against Brad Smalls?
  • What charges do you think the district attorney would make against Charlene Davis, Rachel Vasquez, and Jillian Kopley? 
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