High School confession pages

Principal Dave Cobb got the call last Sunday. On Facebook, someone had created a page called "West High Sluts." 

His first reaction was anger. But that quickly tempered into concern for his students. 

"Because of the offensiveness, I was worried about the safety of the kids," he said. 

National news stories about students committing suicide after experiencing online bullying and shaming have become distressingly commonplace.

Cobb had been aware of a handful of West High-centered gossip pages popping up on Facebook over the last few weeks, but none as blunt or offensive as "West High Sluts." 

Help from the local FBI office got some of those earlier pages pulled down, he said. 

But after hearing about the new page Sunday, Cobb decided he needed to call Superintendent Terry Bouck and gather a team to address what they saw as a growing problem. 

The first thing they did was again call on the FBI to get the "West High Sluts" page pulled down, which Facebook did. 

By Thursday, administrators had managed to identify some of the students who had created or perpetuated several of the Facebook pages. 

"We have five students in the district who have admitted to managing or posting on those websites," Cobb said.  

In 2011, School District 2 added cyberbullying to its hazing and bullying policy, listing specific online behavior that could land students in trouble. 

"Cyberbullying includes, but is not limited to ... posting, producing or sending racist, harassing, insulting, threatening, embarrassing, cruel, harmful or false content ... through interactive media, websites or social networking sites," the policy reads.

The content on the Facebook pages falls under this new policy, Cobb said, and so the policy will guide how they end up disciplining the students. 

"It's an epidemic," said Billings Police Officer George Zorzakis, a school resource officer at Lewis and Clark Middle School. 

Zorzakis, working with administrators at Lewis and Clark two years ago, initially raised the issue with SD2 trustees of having a strong cyberbullying policy on the books.

"We saw this coming," he said.

West High officials have been direct with students since the pages started popping up, warning them about the consequences.

Last Monday, Cobb made an announcement to the student body, telling students that the administration was aware of the Facebook pages and that administrators had turned over information about them to law enforcement, and then he reminded the students of the code of conduct they had all signed. 

Over the weekend, Bouck mailed a letter to parents informing them of the situation. 

"You need to be intensive," Cobb said. "Parents need to be directly involved."

In the letter, Bouck encourages parents to sit and talk to their children about the appropriate use of social media and to be aware of how their children are using the computer and their mobile devices. 

"Our school system isn't going to tolerate this stuff," Bouck said. "We can't."

A "West High Confessions" page was still accessible on Facebook on Friday. But it carried the disclaimer, "New admin here and I will not be posting any confessions with profanity and bullying! If you don't like it, feel free to hit the unlike button. Say something nice, you just might make someones day!"

Similarly, a confession page for Senior High remained up Friday. Skyview High had two confession pages, one of which had been inactive for a week. 

On the other, a district official posted to a thread reminding students of the hazing, bullying and cyberbullying policy. 

It's a struggle administrators know they will continue to deal with. As they do, they hope to better educate students and encourage parents to keep communicating with their children. 

West High assistant principal Kim Verschoot has been working closely with the students the district has identified as having posted on the confessions page.  

"These are teenagers," she said. "I remind them, 'It's not what you meant, it's how you made someone feel.' "

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Health care reporter for the Billings Gazette.