LEE COUNTY — Teenagers give little thought to the boundaries between their online and offline lives, according to Russell Sabella, a professor at FGCU’s counseling school.
Schoolyard bullies become Facebook bullies, Sabella contends, even though their Internet taunts and threats remain widely visible to whoever visits their page.
“They don’t view this as being offline or online,” the professor said.
Deputies and principals make a distinction, however. And with several recent Facebook-related arrests in Lee County, authorities are now mapping the boundaries between normal activity online and evidence of a crime or bullying.
“Kids are going to be kids. We get that,” offered Lee County School District spokesman Joe Donzelli. “But this isn’t the ‘40’s or the 50’s any more. This is 2011.”
Wednesday, Lee deputies arrested four teenagers who posted messages on their Facebook pages in which they threatened to kill a classmate at North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts. Nichole Cruz, 13; Hope Williams,14; Camren Monroe, 14; and Amber Fredrick, 14 all face a felony charge of aggravated stalking of a minor. The Daily News is not publishing their mug shots because they are juveniles.
Detectives say each discussed killing a student whom they incorrectly believed informed school officials about a 13-year-old classmate who brought a loaded gun to school on Jan. 27, leading to the boy’s arrest.
“Boo boo I need u to show me who that (redacted) kid is so I can kick he ass,” Frederick wrote, according to an arrest report.
“Alrighty, will do,” Cruz responded. “He (expletive) ruined my bestfriend’s life! And ima end his!!”
The victim learned about the comments the next day at school, as friends warned him to be careful walking down the halls. He and his brother, also a student at the school, took the threat seriously.
“He stated if one student had already brought a gun to school, what would keep another from bringing a gun to school to kill him,” a detective wrote.
The case follows last month’s arrest of a pair of Estero High School students accused of maintaining a fake Facebook page to torment a classmate. MacKenzie Barker, 15, and Taylor Wynn, 16, also face a charge each of aggravated stalking of a minor.
Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott said neither case represented anything out of the ordinary for his agency, despite both involving social media. Invoking the 13-year-old who brought the gun to school, Scott said Wednesday’s arrests were the natural response to a death threat.
“Frankly, I think we’re in the day and age that when someone says something or writes something, it needs to be taken seriously,” Scott said.
Yet online comments move faster, and their menace is amplified because they are visible to large groups of students, Sabella says. The victim in Wednesday’s arrest was never contacted by the teenagers, the Sheriff’s Office reported, but only learned of the threats through others who had seen the pages.
Donzelli, at the school district, said such a lack of context adds to a victim’s fear.
“We don’t know the tone, we don’t know the context,” Donzelli said. “But that’s the point.”
Such vague threats mean deputies have to act faster, explained Lee County Sgt. Stephanie Eller, a former supervisor of School Resource Officers. Many rumors or threats intercepted during school hours can be scrutinized before action is taken, she said.
“We’d pull that kid aside and say, ‘What’d you mean by that?’” she said.
The intentions of the teenagers arrested Wednesday remain to be seen. They may not matter. At a juvenile court hearing broadcast by NBC-2, Lee Circuit Judge Bruce Kyle sternly ordered all four to be held in home detention for 21 days pending arraignment.
Formal charges are pending in both Facebook-related cases, and prosecutors have the sole discretion of which, if any, charge they will file. A State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman declined comment.
In both cases, charges extend from the state cyberstalking statute, added in 2003. A third-degree felony, the charge carries a maximum five-year prison sentence upon conviction as an adult.
George Tragos, a defense attorney in Pinellas County with experience representing juveniles, said that if the teenagers merely posted threats, prosecution should be scrapped for a diversion such as counseling.
“It’s a reaction to the extreme situation,” he said of the arrests. “Columbine were juveniles ... Everyone’s afraid now.”
The school district, meanwhile, will conduct investigations in both cases according to its bullying and harassment policy. The policy, formalized by a 2008 law named for Cape Coral bullying victim Jeffrey Johnston, makes no distinction whether a student or employee is harassed at school or outside.
Donzelli, like other officials, would like to see parents take the lead in any case of bullying.
“We need this to be a teachable moment for families out there.”