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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008
School board hears concerns about cyberbullying and bigotry
By Jo E. Prout
VOORHEESVILLE Local students are “torturing” two high school students here using hate blogs and harassment, according to relatives of the targets.
Julie Mazzaferro told the school board Monday that her godchild and the godchild’s friend, teenage girls, have been harassed both at school and on a hate blog.
“There’s a lot of racism going on in the school, and bigotry and hatred from this group,” Mazzaferro said. “This is what we’re dealing with every day.”
Mazzaferro told The Enterprise that five students have caused trouble for these two students since September.
“They’re torturing these two,” she said. “They put a hate blog on Facebook,” she said of the social networking site. Facebook is set up so that only those who know a person and have permission to use his or her site can see postings.
The page, which has been removed, had a picture of Nazi soldiers with the girls’ faces superimposed as though they were saluting, and their pictures were printed over swastikas, she said. Under the pictures were the words, “Jews,” “whores,” and “bitches.” Her godchild and her friend, though, are not Jewish, she said.
Mazzaferro said that her godchild’s grandparents were Russian Orthodox and were persecuted during the Holocaust.
“What the heck is a hate blog?”
Over 40 comments from other students, many of them hateful and insulting, were posted on the site.
When she found out about the Facebook page, which she printed and The Enterprise reviewed, Mazzaferro said, “I didn’t sleep for three nights. I thought, ‘What the heck is a hate blog?’ ”
Mazzaferro said that the students involved are former friends who might have shared a crush on a boy at an Albany Community Jewish Center camp. Hurt feelings and tactless slurs may have caused the situation to grow out of control, she said.
A comment on Facebook written by one of the students who put up the altered photo reads, “Don’t you ever think you’re better than us, because, well, you’re not…I really hate it to come to this because I know that we were friends, whether you admit it or not, and it’s really sad that some trashy slut ruined it.
“I’m not saying I ever want to be friends with you again, because now I see what you’re really made of, and I’ll never be your friend again. But, don’t you ever talk down to me or my family again, because I can and will punch you in the face. If you reply to this message, or say anything to my family again, I’ll pray for you. Because, no matter how many dumb whores try to hurt us, we always stick together, and you and that dumb bitch don’t stand a chance.”
The next day, the same girl wrote, “…I could go to every person in the school and ask them about you guys and 98% of them would say ew and laugh….everyone laughs and makes jokes about you. But whatever that’s your problem that you’re ugly and smell, not mine. I don’t give a shit about you or your Jesus obsessing dirty immature smelly family….”
Mazzaferro told the board Monday that the school staff had not taken her complaints seriously.
“There’s supposed to be a zero-tolerance policy at this school. This is cyberbullying,” she said. “Everyone should be able to go to school without being harassed.”
Interim Superintendent Raymond Colluciello told her at the meeting, “We are continuing the investigation. Thank you for coming.”
School board President David Gibson asked Mazzaferro to refrain from using names of students or staff for confidentiality reasons.
“You are owed a response and you will get one,” Gibson said.
Erica Smith told the board that there is an underlying culture of intolerance in the district. Smith, a Voorheesville alumna and the sister of a current student, said that she told the board about an instance of cyberbullying last year. At that time, she said, an autistic student’s face had been transposed over a swastika on Facebook.
Then, a character education committee was formed and she was asked to take part, she said.
“There was one meeting. I haven’t heard since,” Smith said.
She said that she knew of the latest cyberbullying incident, and said that Mazzaferro’s godchild and her friend had been teased, and more.
“They cross the line when they Photoshop a head and put it on Hitler,” Smith said. She said that there is also a “video of kids screaming they hate Jews.”
Smith told the board Monday that, if the students who created the page had been adults, they could be fired from their jobs or arrested.
“It’s disgusting that the administration would tolerate this at school,” Smith said. “You don’t just slap a child on the wrist” to deal with hate issues, she said.
“We absolutely don’t intend to be tolerant,” Gibson told her. “We don’t control what every student does after school.” He said that students need to come to school and feel safe.
“The school should follow its own protocol about suspending students,” Smith told The Enterprise.
“We’re absolutely working hard to be sure we’re following our own policies,” Gibson said. “We will not tolerate bullying that interferes with a student’s educational experience.”
In April, the school board approved a policy to prevent harassment, hazing, and bullying in the district. The policy refers to electronic communication that intimidates or threatens another, but only about characteristics that are protected by law, like race or creed. Bullying regarding a student’s looks, for example, might not be covered.
The policy also prohibits bullying only on school grounds or at school-sponsored activities.
“I’d like to see some sensitivity training, character education, random acts of kindness,” Smith said about how to change the situation at the high school. “Something needs to be done to get these kids exposed to the real world. I just want kids to go to school and have a positive environment. They deserve an education. School should be a safe place to go.”
Gibson said that no resolutions were made following the executive session held during the school board meeting Monday. He had told Smith that the alleged bullying would be discussed in executive session.
“Yes, it was discussed,” Gibson said Tuesday. Allegations of racism and bullying “take some serious investigation to make sure that one doesn’t jump to conclusions,” he said. “Knee-jerk reactions don’t serve anyone very well. The school cannot be arbitrator of anyone in the community.”
He said that school officials must talk to each of the parties involved, sometimes more than once, “before one takes precipitous [actions].”
“Life is complicated. We can’t take [arguments] at face value until we hear all sides of the story. It doesn’t mean it’s not true,” he said. “We view it as being important.”
Mazzaferro told The Enterprise that her godchild’s former friends, including several children from one family, are the ones who started the bullying. They are neighbors, Mazzaferro said, whom her godchild decided not to befriend after she heard intolerant language at their home.
She said that her godchild repeated, in sarcasm, an intolerant word to the family. That led to anger between the students.
“My kid is really not arguing. She just wants to be left alone,” she said.
Mazzaferro also said that her godchild has cried because she does not want to go to school.
Mazzaferro approached school officials two weeks ago, she said.
“I want it to stop. I want the kids suspended. There’s a lot of bigotry from this group. They don’t want to face it in this school,” she said.
She said that, before school officials knew all the facts, one of the assistant principals was going to punish her godchild for her involvement with the bullying and the hate blog.
Her godchild “would never do that. She is just not that kind of kid. She is quiet and a good student,” Mazzaferro said.
“The school doesn’t really seem to want to tackle it,” she said. “If it’s zero-tolerance, why is it happening, again?”
Mazzaferro wants the students doing the bullying to be suspended for a few days, and, perhaps, see the school psychologist for an evaluation. She hopes that a counselor will make it clear to the students that hate crimes are criminal. If the bullying happens again, she said, she wants them to be expelled. She also wants letters to be sent to the parents of each child who signed the comments on Facebook.
“This is bullying. It’s wrong. It’s hateful. Nobody should have to face that when they go to school or work or anything,” Mazzaferro said.
“I may have to get the police involved to get it to stop,” she said, adding that she does not want to escalate the situation by calling authorities, and that she does not want the students involved to have criminal records. “I’ve got a video of these kids you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got everything, copy after copy. The proof is in the pudding. It’s all in the writing.”