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Savaged in Cyberspace

What can you do if a student impersonates you on the Web?

It wasn’t enough just to steal Billy Johnson’s identity and create a fake MySpace profile of the Colorado teacher. No, the high school student took it a step further, with catastrophic results.

Pretending to be Johnson, the student used the fake profile to send sexually suggestive e-mails to a host of girls from Fruita Monument High School, the Grand Junction school where Johnson taught and coached. Enraged, the girls’ parents demanded that school officials “do something.” So they suspended Johnson (with pay) last summer while the police conducted an investigation. That took weeks because MySpace wouldn’t release the information needed to trace the fake
e-mails without a subpoena, although the site did immediately remove the phony profile.

Impersonating or mocking educators online is no laughing matter. In some cases, it's led to criminal charges.

A couple of weeks into the fall term, Johnson was finally exonerated and allowed to return to the classroom. Ultimately, the police arrested the student, and last December he pleaded guilty to a computer crime and criminal libel. The second charge is a felony. Now 18 and attending school in Texas, the student was scheduled to be sentenced after this issue of NEA Today went to press.

Anna Draker, an assistant principal from Bexar County, Texas, is another recent cyber-assault victim. Two students at Clark High School created a fake MySpace profile under her name, incorporating a photo of her taken from the school’s Web site. The profile contained “lewd, defamatory and obscene comments, pictures and graphics,” including the statement that Draker is a lesbian, according to court papers.

The married mother of two didn’t find out about the sham profile until it had been posted for a month and viewed by numerous persons, including Clark students. After receiving a subpoena, MySpace traced the fake posting to computers in the homes of two Clark students. According to media reports, one student was suspended for three days and has been charged with a felony.

Last August, Draker sued the two students and their parents for defamation, seeking $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages. She’s trying to hold the parents liable for failing to properly supervise their children, arguing that they knew that the girls resented Draker because of several disciplinary run-ins and should have done more to prevent them from taking their revenge.

The parents of one of the students recently sued the teacher who originally alerted Draker’s supervisor about the site. The parents claim that the teacher republished the defamatory information and should be required to pay “some or all” of whatever damages Draker recovers. No trial date has been set.

In yet another MySpace case decided last year, a Pennsylvania federal judge ruled that school officials did not violate the First Amendment by punishing Justin Layshock for creating a fake MySpace profile of his high school principal, Eric Trosch.

Accompanied by a photo lifted from the school’s Web site, the bogus profile has Trosch confiding to the world that he uses drugs, abuses alcohol, and is a “big fag.” When word of the “parody” got out, so many students tried to access the site at school that the computer system shut down, causing the cancellation of several classes and other administrative headaches. 

Layshock was suspended for 10 days and assigned to an in-school, alternative education program for students with “behavior problems.” When he sued, the court held that, even though the fake profile was created and posted off-campus, it had “substantially disrupted school operations,” and that’s enough to justify his punishment.

So, what can you do if a student creates a fake MySpace profile using your image and name?

  • Immediately notify MySpace that someone has created an imposter profile and ask that it be taken down. The site has created a special form just for teachers and faculty members to report this sort of abuse, and to date, it has responded quickly. Check under MySpace’s FAQ section.
  • Contact local law enforcement officials, for a couple of reasons. Depending on state law, the students may have committed a crime such as identity theft, fraud, or criminal libel. Also, MySpace won’t help identify the culprit without a subpoena, which may require the involvement of the local prosecutor or police.
  • Inform the school administration so that appropriate disciplinary action can be taken.
  • Call your local UniServ representative. (Actually, do that first.) As Billy Johnson learned, there’s always the chance school officials might come after you.
Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel

Photo: Groff Creative Inc.

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