It’s a lawsuit that no middle school student should ever have to file – a charge that her classmates’ excessive cyberbullying and jesting libeled her on Facebook. But for 14-year-old Alex Boston, that is exactly what the Georgia student had to do as she had reportedly been bullied on Facebook by two classmates. And, despite a direct plea to school officials and police to step in, the administration had done little to ameliorate the situation.
Earlier this month, Alex used an untraditional approach to stand up to her alleged tormentors; she handed them a libel lawsuit. So what led her down this path? Alex contends that when she moved to her Atlanta middle school, she immediately knew she was an outsider, as evidenced by the harsh glances and caustic comments. However, it wasn’t until she went to Facebook that she learned the bullying had left the school hallways and entered cyber space.
As put by Alex, a fake Facebook page had been set up under her name and personal information. On the page, her profile picture had been doctored to make her face appear fatter and the profile also implied that Alex smoked marijuana and made up a language called “Retardish.” The classmates also allegedly left comments on other schoolmates’ pages that were supposedly from Alex – comments that were lewd in nature and contained traces of racism.
“I was upset that my friends would turn on me like that,” Alex told The Associated Press. “I was crying. It was hard to go to school the next day.”
While states work to craft the appropriate verbiage for cyberbullying laws, the wake of many recent suicides that were caused by bullying as well as the rise of high profile cases like Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi have led parents to take action before the matter gets even more tragic. In the case of Alex that is exactly what her family did and experts predict that lawsuits like these will only become more ubiquitous as problems with bullying persist.
“A lot of prosecutors just don’t have the energy to prosecute 13-year-olds for being mean,” said Parry Aftab, an attorney and child advocate who runs stopcyberbullying.org. “Parents are all feeling very frustrated, and they just don’t know what to do.”
In Alex’s case, frustration was endless as the family learned of the phony Facebook page a year ago and contacted administrators at the school and filed a report with Cobb County Police. The police suggested that Alex contact Facebook to have the site taken down but Alex said despite requests to the social networking giant, it was not actually brought down until the lawsuit was filed.
For some, the thought of a 14-year-old suing her classmates for libel might seem a bit extreme. After all, 14-year-olds are still children at the end of the day that will make mistakes, stumble and exhibit signs of ignorance. But I would counter that unless you are the one who is the victim of cyberbullying, it is hard to imagine just how harrowing this situation can be. And who is to say that your reputation at such a precious age shouldn’t be sacrosanct.
The issue of whether you should be able to sue a minor for bullying is a tricky one. Most importantly, how does one determine at what age a bully’s actions could actually be chalked up to age and just not enough life experience or education to know better? Specifically, should a seven-year-old be punished for writing something defaming on the bathroom walls about a classmate?
On the other hand, our kids are growing up today in one of the most frightening times, in which a child’s reputation can be tarnished with the stroke of the mouse and the repercussions can be far worse than a child just crying to his/her parents. I will never know what Alex is experiencing and since I am not yet a mother I cannot imagine the fury I would feel towards a school and police department that appeared to not defend my child. So, I won’t pass judgment. Instead I will hope for better – hope that parents can continue to teach kids right from wrong and teach them just how ugly their words and actions can be.