Cyberbullying arrest a gray area for district

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Protective parent: Stephanie Carter stands behind her son, Austin, in a picture that accompanied a letter she wrote to the editor in 2015 about raising a child with autism. “He is one of the most kindhearted, selfless, loving, amazing people I know,” she wrote then.

GUILDERLAND — Police last week arrested a Guilderland High School student for cyberbullying an autistic schoolmate, Austin Carter. The unnamed 15-year-old was arrested for aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.

School officials, meanwhile, were not contacted by Carter about the incident and say it did not happen on school grounds; as a result, they have confined their response to remaining “vigilant” to “figure out if it has an impact on the school climate,” according to Superintendent Marie Wiles.

“If we know about it [an incident],” Wiles said, “our teachers and our administrators are put on notice, and keep their eyes opened, and are asked to just be aware that it happened,” to prevent any follow-up events from happening on school grounds.

Bobby LaMontain, who was engaged to Austin Carter’s mother and referred to the teenager as his son, called The Enterprise to say that Carter had received a threatening message online, and that the student who sent it had been arrested by the Guilderland Police.

In the days since this story broke, LaMontain and Carter’s mother, Stephanie Carter, have split up, both confirmed.

The Enterprise has been unable, through either LaMontain or Stephanie Carter, to speak directly with Austin Carter.

How it unfolded

The event that precipitated the cyberbullying incident occurred at school, LaMontain said. Austin Carter has a tendency to interpret things literally, he said. Carter believed that he overheard a young man saying, in the school hallway, that he “was going to rape a girl,” LaMontain said.

According to the deposition that Carter  made to police — which The Enterprise received, unredacted, from LaMontain — Carter was in his bedroom on  June 1, chatting on Facebook with two other young people, one a female friend, and the other the same young man whom Carter believed had made the statement about raping a girl. Carter’s female friend was either dating or thinking about dating that young man, LaMontain said.

Carter told the girl, in a Facebook message, that “REDACTED rapes girls,” according to Carter’s deposition. Carter explained in the deposition that he had told the girl what REDACTED said “so she wouldn’t date him.” He said he was trying to protect her, “so that REDACTED wouldn’t rape her.”

 

Bullying in cyberspace: This message was sent to Austin Carter on Facebook on June 1. It led to the arrest of a Guilderland High School student on a charge of aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.

 

Soon after Carter wrote that message, a friend of the young man whom Carter claimed to have overheard talking about rape wrote a message on Facebook, threatening Carter and calling him a variety of names including “bitch ass nigga,” “gay ass nigga,” and referring to his “fuckin’ retired [presumably a misspelling of “retarded”] mouth.” This friend of the young man’s also wrote that “I see you play football with your friends in altmout [Altamont, where Carter lives] and that Carter “can’t even though [throw]” a football and that he runs “like a chicken with his head cut off.” He continued, “if you want to fight me. I’ll be up for a good fight. So you fuckin gay ass nigga shut. your cunt mother fucking mouth. and dm where you want to meet to blow the gun cuz you b dead nigga.”

The arrest

This young man told police, according to his arrest report, that, by writing that message, he was trying to “stand up for” his friend, the one whom Carter had warned would rape girls. According to the arrest report, the writer of the message told this to police after he had been Mirandized with his mother present.

The Enterprise is withholding the name of the arrested teen because, at 15, he is not an adult under New York State law.

The arrest report was read over the phone, with name and other identifying details redacted, to The Enterprise by Curtis Cox, deputy chief of the Guilderland Police.

Reached by phone, the arrested juvenile’s mother declined to comment.

Cox said that the question of whether a bullying incident merits an arrest “actually depends on the seriousness of the bullying.” It needs to reach a certain threshold, he said, for it to violate the law.

“If it rises to that level,” he continued, “then we will take appropriate steps.”

Was it the physical threat expressed in this incident that made the difference?

“In its entirety, it [the incident] rose to the level where there needed to be an arrest,” Cox said.

Cox said that the the student who was charged is due in the Albany County Probation Department on June 17, and that he will not appear in any court. “The intent of the juvenile system,” he said, “is to keep them out of criminal court.”

Stephanie Carter told The Enterprise that she would like to see the student who has been charged get any counseling that he may  need, and she expressed hope that the Probation Department will initiate that process.

There have been several arrests in the region in recent years for cyberbullying incidents. One was in November of 2013, when four Guilderland High School juniors, all males, were arrested for cyberbullying over a sexually explicit rap song they had recorded and posted online. They were arrested under a 2010 Albany County law against cyberbullying. The four students were given youthful-offender status, and the disposition of their cases is not known.

The county’s cyberbullying law was struck down in July 2014 by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, as being too broad. A more narrowly written law was passed several months later but has not yet been challenged in court.

LaMontain said that Austin Carter loves school. Carter plays Unified Basketball, which he loves, LaMontain said, and does Unified Bowling as well. “Everyone who knows Austin loves Austin,” he said. Special Olympics Unified Sports programs are for people with disabilities.

Bullying incidents have been rare, said LaMontain. There was one other incident very recently, he said, at Keenholts Park in Guilderland Center, where a group of boys laughed at Carter and took his football, throwing it into the bushes. LaMontain had gone to look for it, but had been unable to find it, he said.

LaMontain recently started a GoFundMe account on his private Facebook page, asking for donations to help him take the family on a vacation and to help his son “see there are good people in the world.” He had set as his goal $10,000, but had not received any funds as of June 15.

Asked what message he hopes to send, with the arrest, LaMontain answered, “That it is an arrestable offense. That everyone should just be treated equal.”

And, LaMontain added — in an echo of what both Carter and the boy accused of bullying him said had motivated them — “I want Austin to know that I’m going to stand up for him.”

School policy

“The lines here are gray,” said Wiles. “If he had written it on a school computer, absolutely,” she said, officials would have considered the incident to have happened on school grounds. “But if it happens on student’s personal device, at night or on the weekend, this is a complex area.”

Told that the precipitating event — Carter allegedly overhearing another boy talk about rape — happened in a school hallway, Wiles said that this was the first time she had heard that detail. If Carter had initially told a school official or an administrator, Wiles said, “Then yes, we would begin an investigation. In this case, it went to the police first, and there was no effect that would have brought it to us for an investigation.”

Asked what she meant by “effect,” Wiles said, “There wasn’t a follow-up incident on school grounds, to my knowledge, that would have caused the school to become involved.

“When does it enter the school?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s always the question we’re wrestling with.”

Guilderland’s own policy on cyberbullying — available on the district website — recognizes the gray area in which cyberspace exists, but encourages school officials to get involved to protect students.

“Cyberbullying and cyberthreats can occur on and off school property and during school and nonschool hours,” the policy says. It continues, “Even if a student receives a threatening message at home, such message can directly impact the psychological and emotional well-being of that individual. In both situations, cyberbullying and cyberthreats become a problem that must be addressed. As a district, school officials should not hesitate to intervene on behalf of students who may be the victims of cyberbullying or cyberthreats.”

A paper called “Dignity and cyberbullying at the schoolhouse gate,” posted on the New York State School Boards Association’s website, notes that a decision of the Second Circuit court in New York State, in a cyberbullying case, has found that, “The question is not whether there has been actual disruption [follow-up effect at school], but whether the school officials ‘might reasonably portend disruption’ from the student expression.”

In other words, the court has ruled, if the cyberbullying or cyberthreat might reasonably be expected to lead to a conflict on school grounds, students could be disciplined, even before any follow-up event occurs.

In addition to disciplining a student accused of bullying, the school also has other means at its disposal, including meeting with the student and the student’s parent, and referring the student to a behavior specialist.

Reporting of bullying incidents

There are two avenues through which a school can report a bullying incident to the State Education Department.

One is through the Dignity for All Students Act, which tracks both in-person bullying and cyberbullying incidents. This tracking system started with the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act in 2012, which requires schools across the state to report incidents of harassment.

The other is through Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting, which tracks a greater range of in-person disruptive incidents, including such things as bringing a weapon to school.

According to DASA data, the entire Guilderland school district — including all five elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school — reported just four cyberbullying incidents over the year 2014-15. These incidents included two at Farnsworth Middle School, of which one was over religion, and one over ethnic group. They also included one at Guilderland High School, which was related to the category of “sex,” which means, for instance, allegations of sexual activity, Guilderland High School principal Thomas Lutsic explained. The other was at Guilderland Elementary, categorized as “other.”

Lutsic explained that “other” is anything that doesn’t fit into other categories, such as people picking on someone’s perceived lack of skill at a video game.

The number of cyberbullying incidents reported was much smaller than the number of in-person events: DASA data show that there were 96 in-person bullying or harassment incidents reported in the school district in 2014-15.

The in-person incidents tracked by DASA are also broken down by category. The 96 in-person incidents in Guilderland in 2014-15 were: two in-person incidents in Altamont Elementary, both related to gender (which Lutsic explained means incidents in which someone of one gender is told that their behavior is better suited to someone of the opposite gender). There were 84 incidents at Farnsworth Middle School, which broke down to: 52 “other,” two about weight, 10 about “sex,” four about sexual orientation, one about gender, two about disability, one about religious practice, two about religion, and 10 about race. There were nine incidents at Guilderland High School, including four “other,” one sexual orientation, two religion, and two ethnic group. There was one incident at Lynnwood Elementary, in the category of “other.”

The incidents reported to VADIR in 2014-15 were:

— At Altamont Elementary: three minor altercations without a weapon; two incidents of intimidation, harassment, menacing, or bullying (IHMB) without a weapon; two incidents of weapons possession, found under circumstances other than a screening device; and six other disruptive incidents.

— At Farnsworth Middle School: one sex offense without a weapon; one reckless endangerment with a weapon; two minor altercations without a weapon; 13 IHMB without a weapon; two larceny or other theft without a weapon; one false alarm; one weapons possession found through screening; and 23 other disruptive incidents.

— At Guilderland Elementary School: 10 minor altercations without a weapon; and four incidents of IHMB without a weapon.

— At Guilderland High School: two assaults with physical injury without a weapon; seven minor altercations without a weapon; one IHMB with a weapon; one IHMB without a weapon; one larceny or other theft without a weapon; one weapons possession found through screening; 12 drug possessions; one alcohol possession; and 16 other disruptive incidents.

— At Lynnwood Elementary School: one other disruptive incident.

— At Pine Bush Elementary School: one weapons possession found through a screening process.

— At Westmere Elementary School: 13 other disruptive incidents.

Wiles was asked if she would be reporting this incident to the State Education Department. She answered, “Probably not. I don’t know that we could, because ultimately it didn’t happen at school.”

More Guilderland News

  • GUILDERLAND — At about midnight on Friday, Sept.

  • Guilderland library trustees voted unanimously to reopen the library — as coronavirus restrictions allow — while construction is underway for an $8 million upgrade. The director will present a reopening plan at the board’s next meeting, on Sept. 17.

  • Currently, some places in Guilderland’s five elementary schools, middle school, and high school have “dead spots” for communication, said Superintendent Marie Wiles. The award will be used to upgrade radio communication for all seven buildings. “It’s about safety and security and the ability for first responders to communicate anywhere within our buildings,” said Wiles.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.