The impersonator posed as a real Cottage Grove, Minn., sixth-grader, created a Facebook page, and posted threats that he would bring a gun to school and shoot three students.
Fights broke out in school as students argued over who created the fake profile that ridiculed the boy, a special-education student. It was not only the viciousness of the lies and threats that caught the attention of Cottage Grove police, but the youthfulness of those involved, only 11 and 12.
Amid a wave of proliferating Facebook fakes and cyber-attacks like this one—including children too young for Facebook’s minimum age of 13—Cottage Grove police and other law enforcement agencies find themselves coping with outdated state laws, limited resources, and a steep learning curve on children’s use of social media.
“There are so many cases like this, where somebody’s being harassed over Facebook, with school-age kids,” said Sgt. Randy McAlister, head of Cottage Grove investigations. “Even if you could charge them all, you probably couldn’t send them to the county attorney, because they’d get overwhelmed very quickly. It definitely is an emerging issue.”
Numerous Minnesota police departments, like Cottage Grove, are now sending officers for training in computer forensics. The Washington, Dakota, and Hennepin county sheriffs’ offices have dedicated specialists to work cybercrimes. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has assigned senior prosecutor Sue Harris to work in the schools and learn how kids use social media to hurt each other.
“It does pose a significant problem for law enforcement,” said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton. Last week, deputies charged a 13-year-old Washington County boy on suspicion of terroristic threats after he used Facebook to threaten other kids with explicit violence at school, Hutton said. The charge is a felony.
In another recent case, disorderly conduct charges were filed against two Tartan High School girls after their Facebook feud erupted into a fight at school.
Police walk a fine line in respecting kids’ First Amendment rights to express themselves on social media outside of school, while dealing with problems that result, Orput said.
“None of that is being generated at the school,” Gail Griffith, a Cottage Grove school resource officer, said of the Facebook case and a second cyber case she investigated. “It’s all outside in the community, at home, but it filters into the school, where they’re all there together, and we end up dealing with it.”
The digital cases take bullying to new heights and challenge police trying to arrest offenders and prevent violence from escalating—or even leading to potential suicide. Officials say they need a law outlawing impersonations, as well as closer supervision by parents. They also need faster turnaround for records subpoenaed from social media, said Hutton, who said deputies sometimes wait weeks.