Schenectady County

Unsolved Niskayuna case highlights cyberbullying

A week after YouTube videos surfaced threatening specific Niskayuna High School students, Police Chi

A week after YouTube videos surfaced threatening specific Niskayuna High School students, Police Chief John Lubrant updated town officials on the investigation’s progress.

His department was working with the FBI to identify the person or people who posted the videos. The goal, he told members of the town board’s Public Safety Committee, was to stabilize the school atmosphere and send “a strong deterrent message to anyone who might consider hitting the send button again.”

“You know, a fight in the parking lot is two kids,” Lubrant said. With video footage, “you hit the send button, it’s everyone in the community and we all have to deal with that.”

The videos, which first surfaced Oct. 27, made direct threats toward three students, two attending Niskayuna High School. In all, three videos were produced and posted to YouTube before the individual channel was shut down completely Nov. 2.

Town police, along with the FBI, have investigated the case since, trying to track down the person or people who posted the videos, but no arrests have been made.

Experts said the case could be seen as another example of bullying moved online. At the least, they say, it’s an example of how such threats can morph in the online world into something more sinister and way beyond what anyone would say in person.

Encouraging that tone is the anonymity of the Internet, which has so far shielded the perpetrator from what are expected to be misdemeanor aggravated harassment charges and, if the person is a student, school sanctions. The criminal charges carry a penalty of up to a year in jail.

David Hennessy, the dean of the business and criminal justice schools at Schenectady County Community College, has studied the Internet for years. Hennessy cited more serious examples of Internet bullying, examples that led to suicides. A Massachusetts girl committed suicide last year after being the target of cyberbullying. In New Jersey, a Rutgers University student also killed himself last year after a roommate posted online a sexual encounter that was secretly taped.

“We’re finding more and more of that,” Hennessy said of the cyberbullying cases. “The environment itself is almost conducive to people to go out and really get kind of nasty.

“As young people, they don’t really know necessarily how much they’re impacting another individual, particularly in a formative time in a person’s life.”

In the Niskayuna case, the perpetrator posted the videos online, then sent emails to the three students targeted, directing them to the posts.

The students and their parents immediately brought the videos to the attention of the school, Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said. The school then notified the police and began responding to what turned out to be growing concern from students about the threats.

Instant dissemination

The fact that anyone who knew where to look could view the videos immediately made the situation broader than a squabble between particular students, Salvaggio said.

“Something that didn’t involve the Internet it could have been something maybe between these two students and somebody else, something we might have been dealing with more in the privacy of an office, the more traditional way. But it had to be dealt with with the whole school because of the accessibility and immediacy of technology.”

The high school responded by taking the extraordinary step that Friday morning of making an announcement to the entire student body over the school’s PA system. By that time, a second threatening video had been discovered.

The announcement, according to a subsequent letter sent home to parents, was “to reassure everyone that safety is our utmost priority and that the high school, in cooperation with police, would take any steps necessary to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Also in response to the videos, school officials have been reexamining their approach to cyberbullying, Salvaggio said.

School officials have been talking with students at the high school and at the district’s two middle schools about online safety and bullying in an online world.

It’s something that has already been a part of the school’s curriculum and academic program, Salvaggio said, but the incident provided an opportunity to re-examine that strategy.

“We felt like we were doing a good job educating kids about that,” Salvaggio said, “but, obviously, we haven’t done enough of a good job and we need to do more.” Salvaggio said that the district plans to partner with the police and the FBI on further education programs.

The district has also expanded the focus of a previously scheduled community meeting, set for Thursday. The focus had been solely on drugs and alcohol; they’re now expanding that to cyberbullying. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the high school media center.

From the perspective of Nancy T. Cupolo, professor and department chair of the department of teacher preparation at Hudson Valley Community College, the school’s response to the situation is very appropriate.

She said the response made it clear that the school would have zero tolerance for such behavior, something Cupolo said is important.

“A direct response that’s honest and immediate often diminishes any continuance of bullying or bullying-type behavior,” Cupolo said.

Teachers, Cupolo said, should be honest and factual to the extent they can be. They can also lessen the risk of future bullying by having students work together in groups with one another.

Salvaggio noted that the identity of the person who posted the videos is not yet known. She and police are holding out the possibility that the person is not a student.

Anonymity key

It’s precisely that uncertainty that is the result of the online world, which has given bullies a new dimension, the possibility of anonymity, according to William Husson, a visiting professor in the department of communications at the University at Albany.

In traditional, face-to-face bullying, the person knows who his tormentor is. That’s all changed.

“When the identity can be kept hidden, that can increase the likelihood of the kind of bullying to be meaner, and more intense,” Husson said. “People might feel freer to produce more extreme kinds of insults.”

In the Niskayuna case, a third video came out on Tuesday, Nov. 1. In that video, the poster, using the same account, continued the taunts to one of the students in particular.

“Listen 2 the lyrics,” the text on the screen read at one point, “Dis what we’re gonna do 2 u!”

The only audio was successive kinds of death rap, with graphic, violent lyrics. The names of the artists were also included in onscreen text. The video, and the account, was taken down by YouTube the next day, Nov. 2.

That video also included a seeming challenge to police.

The police department has been working with the FBI since the videos came out in an attempt to track their source.

As for the high school itself, Salvaggio said Friday she hesitated to say it was completely back to normal. But she believed the general day-to-day sense of safety had returned.

For the most part, she said, students just got tired of it.

On the now-shuttered YouTube channel, a successive line of commenters reminded the perpetrator that the FBI was coming and that the poster would be caught and punished.

“I think our students started giving whoever was responsible for the videos feedback that they needed to stop,” Salvaggio said. “At some point, very quickly, the kids and the community got tired of it.”

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