GPD: Lewd rap a crime

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“We have victims that have come forward,” Captain Curtis Cox with the Guilderland Police says at a press conference on Nov. 21 announcing the arrests earlier that day of four Guilderland High School juniors for cyberbullying. The teens are accused of posting a rap song to YouTube. Two of the 20 or so students named in the song have registered complaints, said Cox.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“We know the public is very interested in bullying and cyberbullying,” Captain Curtis Cox says before four TV cameras and a gaggle of reporters at a Nov. 21 press conference in Guilderland Town Hall.

GUILDERLAND — Four Guilderland High School juniors, all males, were arrested Thursday by Guilderland Police on misdemeanor charges under a 2010 Albany County law making cyberbullying a crime.

“The message here is bullying will not be tolerated,” said Captain Curtis Cox at a well-attended press conference on Thursday afternoon.

The rap, said Cox, makes “very inappropriate accusations, sexually explicit descriptions, etcetera, etcetera” about “a bunch of sophomores.”

Cox announced the arrests at Guilderland Town Hall where transcripts of the recording along with the names of the defendants were distributed.

Each of these Guilderland residents — Michael K. Malone, 17; Giovanni D. Santor, 16; Joshua A. Thompson, 16; and Parker J. Carmichael, 17 — is charged with one count of cyberbullying and will appear in Guilderland Town Court on Dec. 5.

In New York State, anyone 16 or older is considered an adult under the law.

Over the course of the day on Thursday, Nov. 21, as Guilderland Police contacted the families of the four teens, they voluntarily turned themselves in to police, Cox said.

If found guilty, each could be fined up to $1,000 and/or jailed for up to a year.

The recording, named “Guilderland Sophomore Rap,” created a media stir. The five-minute rap was posted on Nov. 11 and was removed the next day by one of the students who posted it.

The school district held a press conference on Nov. 13 and is handling the case separately under its own code of conduct. Superintendent Marie Wiles said on Friday that her hearing for the students, who had been suspended, would be soon as scheduling with the attorneys involved is being worked out.

Asked for her reaction to the police arrests, Wiles said, “My word is it’s all unfortunate. The Guilderland Police Department needs to do what they need to do.”

The words

The rap transcript, with names blacked out, has lyrics like, “Five sophomore girls together sounds like a slutfest. Only takes a minute of drinkin’ to get ’em undressed.”

The recording, which featured just a single still picture of the Guilderland High School sign, goes on to make a string of allegations, for example, about a girl “obsessed with black guys,” or another who “with any guy, she goes all the way like the Boston Red Sox” or another who it claims posted bare-breasted pictures of herself on Instagram.

The rap criticizes a “dude” “who pops a cherry and likes it” and also threatens, if anyone ever talks to (name blacked out), “I’m gonna terminate ya, Schwarzenegger.”

“All of the media said it was too vulgar and too inappropriate to put on the air,” Cox said of the rap.

In the seven-page transcript, there are 70 blacked-out portions and no way of determining how many names are repeated. Cox said “20 or so” students were mentioned.

A decade ago, allegations arose about a Guilderland physical-education teacher, a female, who called some of her players “sluts” and “slutty.” Some players said they called each other that. The district hired an outside investigator who concluded the coach “set up a hostile environment for these young women because of their sex.”

In July 2003, the district reached an agreement with the coach, under which she resigned.

The Enterprise asked Wiles if it is possible the language used in the rap could have been current among both those who produced it and those who were named in it. “It’s all about context and knowing your audience…There are ways people can talk with one another,” said Wiles. “Outside of that context, those words take on another meaning and power.”

Wiles said she wrote her doctoral dissertation on urban education, about aspiring teachers who want to teach in poor inner-city schools. “They talked about code-switching, relating to students by speaking in their words. I get that,” said Wiles.

But, she said, there’s a “sophisticated lesson” to be learned.

Wiles said, every time she sends an e-mail, she asks herself: How would this read in the newspaper?

The Enterprise also asked Wiles if she thought the four suspects and their rap was part of an ongoing campaign to harass or bully the victims named in the audio clip or if it were a one-time statement.

Noting she had not yet had “an opportunity to talk with the young men,” Wiles said she had no reason to believe “there’s a persistent issue.”

Cox also said that he was unaware of any run-ins the four youths had had with the law previously.

The decision to arrest

“We applied the YouTube video to the law and it fit,” said Cox.

The law, introduced by Albany County Legislator Brian Scavo, was passed two years before the state enacted the Dignity for All Students Act in 2012, requiring districts come up with policies that dealt with cyberbullying both on and off school grounds, to fill what legislators perceived as a gap since there was no statewide or federal legislation prohibiting cyberbullying.

The county’s law is currently being challenged in the top court in the state’s three-tiered system; the case that will be heard by the Court of Appeals next year.

“Perpetrators of cyberbullying are often more extreme in the threats and taunts they inflict on their victims,” the Albany County law says, “as they do not actually see their victim’s emotional reaction to the abuse and believe they are anonymous.”

The law also says that “victims of cyber-bullying suffer very real and serious harm as a result of these incidents, often showing signs of depression, anxiety, social isolation, nervousness when interacting with technology, low self-esteem, and declining school performance.”

“The law speaks for itself,” said Cox. “We had a victim come forward that felt bullied.”

He also said, “We’re very concerned about it…These people were targeted.”

Asked how many victims complained, Cox said, “At least two.”

Roger Ginder, who heads the Community Services Unit for the Guilderland Police, told The Enterprise last week that a parent of one of the students named in the audio clip had called the police department about it on Tuesday morning, Nov. 12, the day after it was posted; the investigation was handled by Nick Ingle, a Guilderland Police officer posted at the school.

In order to make the arrests, Cox said, “We had to have a victim that felt bullied.”

Court challenge

The case challenging the county’s law was first heard in the Cohoes City Court. Marquan W. Mackey-Meggs, a student at Cohoes High School, had posted pictures of students at his school on a Facebook webpage he created entitled “Cohoes Flame Page.” Below the pictures, court papers said, he wrote descriptive comments “which were largely derogatory and sexual in nature.”

On Dec. 1, 2011, Richard R. Maguire, Cohoes City Court judge, who dismissed eight harassment counts, denied Mackey-Meggs’s motion to declare the cyberbullying law unconstitutional. The case was subsequently appealed to the Albany County Court, where Judge Stephen W. Herrick, on May 20, 2013, confirmed the conviction.

Herrick cited the county law’s definition of cyberbulling as “any act of communicating or causing a communication to be sent by mechanical or electronic means, including posting statements on the internet or through a computer or email network, disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs; disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information, or sending hate mail, with no legitimate private, personal, or public purpose, with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.”

Mackey-Meggs contended that, although Albany County “may be able to criminalize fighting words, incitement, obscenity, and true threats, it cannot go further.” He argued that the cyberbullying law goes further by regulating communication that is private, personal, false or sexual, which, he contends, would include “the vast majority of postings on common social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and  MySpace.”

Albany County, however, maintains that “the law sets forth a mental element, requiring that a defendant’s actions be made ‘with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.’” So, the county argues that the cyberbullying law is “narrowly tailored to target only that speech which constitutes bullying. Criminalization of this speech is both necessary and proper given the long lasting and traumatic effects of bullying,” the county argues.

Vigilance urged

The week the video was posted, The Enterprise asked the Guilderland High School principal, Thomas Lutsic, how the four accused students were found. Lutsic said only, “It was brought to our attention.” He went on, “The vast majority are appalled by this happening and would do the right thing.”

Asked for the boys’ reaction, Lutsic said, “All did say it was a mistake.” The school had declined to name the accused students.

On Thursday, Cox said of cyberbullying, “It is a serious matter. People from all across the country are suffering psychological effects from being bullied.” He went on to say that some had committed suicide.

He had this advice for parents: “Please try to be more cognizant of what your children are doing,” Cox said, noting, perhaps “these kids thought it was a big joke.” He urged, “Try to be more vigilant.”

Wiles said that the school district, which was a launching point for the county’s anti-bullying campaign in September, is “reflecting on how to do a better job.”

She said of the district’s years of work on teaching respect, “We pride ourselves and are working very hard — it wasn’t hard enough…There are tremendous consequences.”

But Wiles also said, “I am the eternal optimist. I hope, at some point, we can find a silver lining and some important lessons learned…what it means to be a good citizen — digital or otherwise.”

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