The problems started in December 2005, when several students from Pennsylvania's Hickory High School posted fake MySpace profiles about their principal, Eric Trosch. All of the posts were mean-spirited; they accused Trosch of using steroids, marijuana, and alcohol; suggested that he had sex with students; and said that his interests included "Transgender, Appreciators of Alcoholic Beverages." In the year and a half since the four separate profiles were posted, the community has experienced the upheaval of multiple lawsuits, the most recent coming this week as Trosch sued the students involved.
The entire story is sordid and a bit ridiculous. In court filings seen by Ars Technica (and that predate the current case), Trosch says that his daughter became aware of the fake profiles on December 11, 2005, and came crying to her father. One can imagine that this would be traumatic for the daughter, who was also a student at a high school in the district at that time. Trosch and the school's IT person attempted to block MySpace, but students were "backdooring a fire wall and getting into" it anyway.
On December 15, Trosch became aware that there was not just a single profile, but several fake profiles, all of which were "mean-spirited, obscene, profane, libelous, and insulting." On December 16, Trosch spoke to teachers at his school about the profiles but was "overcome with emotion and could not continue." Meanwhile, back at home, Trosch's wife was apparently refreshing the profiles and looking at the names of those who left comments. She sent these names to Trosch, who then confirmed that the students were in fact in school that day, all in an attempt to prove that the profiles were being accessed from school.
With this information in hand, Trosch and the IT person discussed shutting down all the computers in the school—perhaps a hint that paranoia had set in over something that no one would ever consider true. The IT person spent an estimated 25 percent of his work time dealing with this issue, and the district as a whole was "required to invest money and a significant amount of time."
Note the word "required" used in the court filing; though this was obviously not required, Trosch kept at it, even taking measures that led to the "cancellation of computer programming classes as well as usage of computers for research for class projects." Now the basic educational mission of the school was being compromised in order to keep students from visiting these profiles during school hours (students were still free to look at the profiles from home, of course). Priorities were being reshuffled, and controlling the "disruption" appeared to move to the top of the list.
When Trosch identified one of the students responsible in late December, and the student confessed, Trosch suspended him for 10 days and said that he would be placed in an "Alternative Education Program" when he returned to school. This student,Justin Layshock, then filed suit against the school district. He admitted that what he'd done was wrong and stupid but argued that the profile had been created from home and that the school had no right to jeopardize hisacademic future by placing him in an alternative program for something he'd done after hours.
The Pennsylvania ACLU came to Layshock's defense (see his parents' statement about the case as well as a copy of the profile in question [PDFs]), but a judge ruled in favor of the school in January 2006. But the case wasn't over; the family then sued the school in federal court for civil rights violations. That case is still ongoing.
Now Trosch, who has since moved schools within the district, is suing the students involved in the 2005 caper, arguing that his reputation was damaged and his earning potential was affected.
It's a sad story in many ways—a stupid prank has now had real consequences in several lives—but it's worth asking if the school response actually created the bigger problem. Calling the students in and asking them to apologize could have been the end of it, but because of the school response and subsequent lawsuits, all parties have been put beneath the hot glow of media spotlights for more than a year. School resources were expended, and administrators spent many hours "dealing" with the issue at an admittedly busy time for the school. Computer classes were shut down and computer access curtailed.
This isn't the first time that the issue has arisen; we reported late last year on a case in Texas where a school administrator sued students who created a fake MySpace profile. It's strange to imagine a day in which US courts will have accumulated case law dealing specifically with fake MySpace profiles, but such a day may not be far off any longer.
The bigger—and more important—issue is where a principal's authority ends, and recent cyberbullying cases raise the same questions about free speech and educational disruption. The Supreme Court has yet to issue an important ruling in this area in relation to the Internet, but with cases like these arising with increasing frequency, the court may need to address the issue soon.