SWANTON — After her daughter was repeatedly urged to kill herself while using a social media site, a Swanton mother is seeking changes to school policies and Vermont law.
The messages sent to 14-year-old Jamie Bushey include (as written):
• “You try and act happy, but inside, you know you should kill yourself”
• “KILL YOURSELF FATTY”
• “You just aim the blade at your heart and kill yourself”
• “youre nasty”
• “Why are you such a whore”
A cheerleader, Jamie was also told, anonymously, “I hope you get shot cheering,” and “Imma throw a rock @ your head when your cheerleading you suck at it anyways. You troll.”
When she learned of the messages her daughter was receiving, “my heart sank,” said April Bushey.
The messages were sent on Ask.fm, a Web site based in Latvia whose entire purpose is to allow users to ask questions of one another anonymously. The site has been tied to multiple suicides by bullying victims worldwide and was called “vile” by British Prime Minister David Cameron following the suicide of a 14-year-old in Britain.
Although users of the site are supposed to be over the age of 13, a 12-year-old in Florida also committed suicide after receiving harassing messages on Ask.fm.
Ask.fm lacks the level of privacy controls found in other social media sites, such as Facebook and Tumblr. The company has said it will make improvements in 2014.
It has begun allowing users to block anonymous questions, and in its safety policy encourages its 65 million users, half of whom are minors, to report harassment to law enforcement. However, the site also states in its policies that it will not reveal a user’s identity to another user.
“They’re making money from our children,” said April. “If you’re picked on and bullied and tormented, you don’t have the right to confront your tormenter. That’s insane.”
Although Ask.fm states it will provide identifying information to law enforcement, the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s office has been unable to learn the identity of the person who threatened to throw rocks at Jamie’s head, according to April.
In 1996, Congress passed a law granting Web sites legal immunity for content posted by users. “I think it’s time to amend that law,” said April.
She has also spoken with her Vermont state representative, Michel Consejo. Consejo told the Messenger he is drafting cyberbullying legislation.
“Outside of the school system we don’t have any tools to investigate that kind of bullying,” said Consejo. Threats of violence by the speaker, such as the comment about throwing rocks at Jamie’s head, qualify for investigation, but telling a teenager to kill themselves does not.
It is not possible to stop people from making the kind of comments Jamie received, said Consejo. “We can, however, tell them, ‘If you do it, we can prosecute you,'” he added.
“They’re basically enticing that young girl to commit suicide,” said Consejo.
Helpless to respond
In Hawaii, which has struggled with some of the highest reported levels of bullying and harassment in the nation, online harassment is now a crime. Both minors and their parents can be fined $100 for each harassing post made.
Vermont does not have any means for prosecuting online harassment. The state does allow schools to punish students who engage in bullying or harassment outside of school, including online, if it has an impact in school, such as interfering with the harassed student’s education or discouraging him or her from taking part in a school activity.
The Agency of Education’s model bullying policy references outside-of-school harassment, but the Student and Parent Handbook for Missisquoi Valley Union, (MVU) where Jamie is a student, does not.
Bushey plans to attend the next meeting of the MVU school board on Nov. 21 to ask the board to add out-of-school bullying to the school’s policy when it impacts what occurs in school.
MVU Principal Dennis Hill posted a letter to parents on MVU’s Web site this week, advising them to take steps to protect their children such as: using tracking software to monitor their child’s computer use; requiring children to use computers in a busy spot within their home, rather than alone in their bedrooms; limiting data access on cell phones; reviewing the child’s list of contacts with the child; and insisting on knowing the passwords to a child’s online account.
April monitored Jamie’s computer use, even visiting Facebook with her daughter. In fact, April contacted the parents of those who sent harassing comments to Jamie on Facebook. But she didn’t know about Jamie’s Ask.fm account until two of Jamie’s friends showed her the account and the comments.
Initially, Jamie didn’t want her mother to complain to the school or go public about the harassment. But after appearing on a WPTZ broadcast earlier this month, Jamie received supportive comments on Facebook and WPTZ viewers contacted the station to convey their thanks to Jamie for speaking out, according to April.
Things were different at school, where only one student and one staff member—a cafeteria worker—offered words of support, Jamie reported.
Jamie said she joined Ask.fm because “everybody on Facebook was getting on.”
The comments started soon after she joined the site.
She suspected the comments came from someone she knew in school since they spoke of seeing her in the hall and cheerleading.
It made her not want to attend school, and the comments calling her fat and ugly caused her to avoid eating at school, April said. Multiple studies have found that bullying victims are more likely to miss school than other students.