THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

5 suspended over Web threat

Middle school official targeted

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2009

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It did not take much for an Internet scandal to rock the town of Mendon, population circa 6,000, especially when it involved a threat to strike the middle school vice principal, Ann Meyer.

Five students from Miscoe Hill School were suspended, and three questionable Facebook groups were taken offline after school officials learned of them last week. Although Police Chief Ernest Horn opted not to arrest the students late Monday, he said the seriousness of the situation cannot be overstated.

“If any additional information comes to light, I will of course reevaluate the matter,’’ he said.

The author of the online group “If 1,000 People Join This Group, I’ll Slap Mrs. Meyer,’’ was suspended for 10 days, while four others who posted to that site and similar ones were sent home for five days, officials said.

Neither Facebook officials nor Meyer could be reached for comment, but Antonio Fernandes, the Mendon-Upton school superintendent, said Meyer has had no bad experiences with the suspended students and feels terrible about the situation. She does not plan to pursue charges, he said.

Students at the school range in age from 10 to 14.

Fernandes, who declined to identify the students who were involved, said the Facebook groups were set up and the suspensions imposed “over a matter of a week.’’

School officials got a tip about the site Dec. 3 and immediately called police. A detective investigated, and the chief sent a letter to the superintendent Monday, informing him of his decision not to take it further.

“We deemed it a form of bullying, and although it was never a security risk, whether dangerous or not, we meant it to be a teachable moment,’’ Fernandes said. “At first, some of their parents were like, ‘So, what’s the problem?’ But eventually they came around.’’

Facebook, a popular social networking site, allows users to create underground communities.

“This is probably happening in more places than we realize,’’ Horn said, adding that the current case was best handled administratively. “These are judgment calls. And hopefully we get it right.’’

Fernandes said the suspended students admitted to what they did and had no idea of the possible consequences.

While instruction about bullying is ongoing, he said students also are focused this week on rebuilding school spirit, with events ranging from Pride Day today to Pajama Day on Friday.

Miscoe Hill Parent Teacher Organization president Diane Willoughby said the suspensions illustrate that it is inappropriate to threaten an administrator, even online.

She also said she empathizes with Meyer: “Her job is disciplinarian, and that’s a hard job to do when you’re dealing with preteens. At that age, they’re impulsive. It’s a peer thing.’’

Fernandes said he has stressed to students and even to his own son, who is applying to colleges, that schools and employers can get into Facebook accounts to judge character. “Nothing is private on the Internet.’’

Paul Andrews, director of professional development for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that administrators are well aware of the issues technology poses for school districts, and the question is how to stay ahead of it. Some are looking at policy developments, but there is nothing across the board, he said.

What’s most concerning is the damage such postings can have on a person’s reputation, he said.

“The reality is, there has been a lot of concern raised about how the Internet can be used to hurt people,’’ he said. “We have to do more training about why you don’t do that.’’

Residents of Mendon, an 18-square mile town southwest of Boston and near the Rhode Island border, are divided over the punishment. Some, like the manager of The Mendon General Store, who asked that only her first name be used, feel it is excessive.

“Some people feel this has all been blown out of proportion, and I do, too,’’ Darlene said. “Years ago, we did things like this; it’s just it wasn’t on the Internet.’’

Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.