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Social-media apps silenced at Staples after triggering a war of words

Published 1:36 pm, Thursday, May 1, 2014

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  • The logo of the Yik Yak app, a social-media tool that school officials say caused havoc among Staples High School students last week before access was blocked within the building. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News
    The logo of the Yik Yak app, a social-media tool that school officials say caused havoc among Staples High School students last week before access was blocked within the building. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Staples High School Principal John Dodig calls them "digital toilet stalls," online sites where comments can be posted anonymously -- personal, vengeful and, sometimes, vulgar -- about classmates and acquaintances.

Over the past week, Staples was rocked by a flood of such postings on two free social-media phone apps -- Yik Yak on Thursday of last week and Gaggle on Monday.

Before the era mobile phones and digital apps, Dodig said, "You had to go into a bathroom stall and close the door and write something and in the course of a day maybe about a dozen people would see it.'

But with the social-media apps, the audience is far greater than a dozen, and it remains "out there forever" and cannot be removed as easily as graffiti can be with soap and water.

Dodig said things were back to normal at the high school after malicious postings on Yik Yak on Thursday of last week targeted several students and, as some students commented, triggered reactions that "brought the school to a halt." That was followed by similar Gaggle postings Monday.

The Yik Yak posts about Staples students identified them by name, said Dodig. The Gaggle posts mostly took the form of pictures of students, he said.

"Right now we have a digital fence around all Westport schools," he said, blocking the phone apps within the buildings.

Dodig also said that "as of 7:30" Wednesday morning, school officials were "in the midst of dealing with several" students who may have been the instigators making "comments on those sites." He said he couldn't predict the outcome of that investigation.

Asked how a school district with anti-bullying programs in place could find itself in such a predicament, Dodig said, there are typically three types of students who enter Staples as freshmen.

"One small group comes in with a dislike or hatred to a subgroup -- blacks, Jews or gays," he said. But they are usually turned around over time as part of the growing process. The second, the majority of those freshmen, enter with the "same values -- socially liberal values -- that Westport is known for," he said. "And that's where you leave everyone alone and do your own thing," he added. "They fit in perfectly."

The third group, the smallest, enters the school like the first group, "but we are unable to help them grow and change their beliefs, but they do realize that it is politically incorrect to share those views and use hurtful words in public, or there is a terrible price to pay for them," he said.

Members of that group, Dodig said, are most likely to post comments via Yik Yak or Gaggle because they can do it anonymously.

Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon, in a memo to parents last week, said Yik Yak was creating opportunities for "mean-spirited bullying behavior among some of our students."

On Monday, the Yik Yak furor were brought up during the Board of Education meeting during discussion on school atmosphere that included the fate of Kool to Be Kind, a volunteer-run anti-bullying program.

Sebastian Hood a Staples student and K2BK mentor, said he first learned of the Yik Yak cyber-bullying posts on Thursday of last week in second period and by lunch time, when students were seated in the same cafeteria where the board holds its meeting, "everyone caught wind of" them.

The posts, Hood told school board members, stated hurtful things about the student body and effectively "brought the school to its knees."

Hood told the board he can't understand why -- with incidents of bullying regularly reported in Westport schools -- the board is "effectively discontinuing a program" like Kool to Be Kind that, alongside other similar programs offered by the school system, deals with the bullying problem.

Sarah Green, a co-founder of K2BK, in seeking an extra year for the volunteer program before being effectively disbanded by school officials, also mentioned the "cruelty" of the Yik Yak posts. And parent JoJo Adler said a lot of "bad things" were said on the app, but no one said to stop it.

The Staples school newspaper, "Inklings," wrote several articles about the incident, including one with student reaction, and in a blog on the New York magazine website this week, Staples senior, Will Haskell, wrote about the Yik Yak incident and how it affected students.

"Yik Yak has been available for download since last November, and anonymity has existed since the dawn of the internet," Haskell wrote. "So why did the app literally bring Staples to a halt last week? Maybe it was a form of emotional release for students who were beginning to relax after months of academic stress. Perhaps it was a way for students to get their bitterness out about their classmates, teachers, and administrators. Or perhaps it was simply the newest, must-have social media thing."

According to the Yik Yak website, users should understand they may "encounter content that may be deemed objectionable, obscene, or in poor taste, which content may or may not be identified as having explicit language."

It also says the Yik Yak service "allows for anonymous content that Yik Yak does not monitor." It adds, "You agree to use the Yik Yak service at your risk and that Yik Yak shall have no liability to your for content that you may find objectionable, obscene or in poor taste."

In an email response for comment on the Staples High School issue, Tyler Droll, Yik Yak CEO wrote to the Westport News, he was "very disappointed in how many chose to misuse our app."

"We recognize that with any social app or network, there is the likelihood for misuse from a small group of users, so we have put specific algorithms in place to prevent this from happening," Droll added.

"We have geo-fenced almost all primary and secondary schools and turned the app to 17-plus in stores to ensure the user base is age appropriate and parents can easily block the app on their children's phones," he said.

"Additionally, the app monitors conversations and posts, and any negative or harmful behavior will result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use," Droll said. "We continue to build out this technology to ensure positive interaction, but we are also finding that as more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self regulate itself in a positive way."

In his memo, Landon said: "We do not have the authority to block this app when students and staff are off-site."

He said all parents and staff should warn "all of their children/students of the nastiness of this site and to urge them not to use or access this site in any way."

Landon, in the memo, added: "Should your child experience any issues related to the use of this site, please contact your child's school and report any misuse."

"Yik Yak isn't us. This isn't representative of us," Landon said at Monday's meeting.