Online jabs fuel University response to cyberbullying

The University is brainstorming ways to stymie the growth of online harassment and bullying, including a potential addition to the Code of Student Conduct.

After noticing a rise in sarcastic posts and images online – ranging from the “Stuff GW People Like” blog to the Ironic GW memes – Assistant Dean of Students Tara Pereira is concerned about the websites’ potential for anonymous harassment.

“I don’t think we want to be the Internet police, but we want civility on campus and we want students to not feel targeted by other students,” Pereira, who oversees the University’s judicial offices, said.

Pereira’s approach to cyberbullying focuses instead on educational efforts aimed at improving civility among students on campus and online. Last week, Pereira announced a new campaign, “Living in the Green,” which will address online misconduct as well as communication skills and politeness in a series of residence hall bulletin boards. The campaign is a response to growing “incivility” on campus – a trend she said has grown alongside online harassment. Over the last five years, the number of online bullying behavioral complaints has jumped from about one per year to at least five per year, demonstrating what she called a mounting problem, she said.

Pereira hopes to specifically address cyber harassment as part of the next formal revision of the student code, a process that can take up to a year, she said. No time frame has been set for the kickoff of that evaluation.

“I have a wish list of some changes to the code and addressing technology more clearly and in a more fine-tuned manner is absolutely at the top of that list,” Pereira said.

In 2010, the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities expanded its definition of disorderly conduct to include “harassment,” a term Pereira said serves as a catch-all for much of the reported online misconduct. Online misconduct is split into two major categories: “direct” bullying or threats and “indirect” harassment of individuals or groups.

Pereira cited cases of online bullying including an ex-boyfriend hacking his former girlfriend’s e-mail account and offensive Twitter posts discussing roommate conflicts.

Controversial gossip websites like Juicy Campus gained national attention in fall 2008, when students nationwide argued that anonymous forums were often libelous. The website shut down in February 2009, which its founder attributed to lack of funding.

No formal complaints have been lodged with the University’s disciplinary offices about a Facebook group called “Overheard at GW,” which boasts more than 2,900 members. The group allows members to post one-liners they claim to have heard GW students say.

Yet the group’s administrator, senior Zahin Hasan, sought the advice of administrators last month to identify possible legal implications of running the page.

He met with Gabriel Slifka, director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities – the department that handles violations that could result in loss of housing, suspension or expulsion, and was advised to closely monitor posts and remove information targeting specific students.

“We had an open conversation about how one’s actions could result in some kind of disciplinary action,” Hasan said.

Following the conversation, Hasan made an effort to “add a little bit of responsibility to this group” by restating the group’s rules and announcing the creation of an e-mail account dedicated to receiving confidential complaints regarding posts.

So far, the account’s inbox remains empty, he said, but the conversation sparked a discussion among administrators about how best to respond to the what Pereira called “uncivil” Internet activity among students.

“I don’t know if we have the right to shut down a whole group, but we certainly have a right to ask people to take down things that other people feel annoyed, disturbed, interfered with or harassed by,” Pereira said.

Pereira added that the potential anonymity of online offenses makes it difficult to hold students accountable. The disciplinary offices that Pereira oversees have intervened only in cases where the wrongdoer is easily identifiable.

“I think the Internet is so beyond GW that I’m not sure that we can put a lot of safeguards in place on the Internet to stop this,” Pereira said.

Concern about the possible consequences of poking fun at fellow students do not seem widespread, as even student leaders have joined the trend.

Alongside other students, the Student Association’s Executive Vice President-elect Abby Bergren facetiously reenacted several posts made to the Overheard at GW group. The “Shit GW People Actually Said” video has logged more than 1,400 hits.

Bergren did not return a request for comment.

Senior Jonathan Schwinn was targeted by name in a meme on the Ironic GW page. The graphic asserted that Schwinn was gay, a claim he said is false, but he added that complaining to the University would only validate the jokesters.

“I just thought it was funny because it’s petty and that’s what makes it hilarious.”

Zahin insisted that the Overheard at GW group “isn’t a hate group, it’s a fun group” and that the posts are indicative of a “tongue-in-cheek social commentary on GW.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.