Online ‘burn books’ sparking controversy

Online burn books are Twitter accounts where an anonymous person posts multiple insulting Tweets.

You have a big nose. Your butt is huge. You’re ugly. You smell.

These insults—and much worse—are popping up on the internet in “burn book” accounts that are specific to area schools and to particular students there. The burn books are creating a stir in local communities across the country.

Inspired by the 2004 Lindsay Lohan movie “Mean Girls,” burn books are Twitter accounts where an anonymous person posts multiple Tweets that insult, taunt, and call out classmates by name on the social media messaging network.

Manheim Township, Warwick, Manheim Central, Donegal, Garden Spot, Hempfield, and Ephrata are among the Pennsylvania school districts that have been targeted by burn book accounts.

Concerned parents and students have alerted local police departments about the burn books, which also make graphic accusations about students’, or even teachers’, sexual habits, drinking, or drug use, in addition to the put-downs.

The accounts specialize in casual cruelty, with Manheim Central’s signing off recently with this flippant tweet: “I’m done for tonight, don’t cry yourself to sleep people.”

Some local police say the accounts are more than just insulting. They are taking steps to obtain account holders’ names and will consider prosecution on charges such as harassment or harassment by communication.

“This absolutely is cyber bullying, this is what it’s about,” said Lititz police Detective John Schofield, who said his department fielded five phone calls on Aug. 15 alerting police to the Warwick burn book. “It could rise to a criminal charge.”

Lancaster County, Pa., District Attorney Craig Stedman agreed.

“I can’t charge someone for being a jerk, but I could see someone crossing over that line and we’d end up having to file charges,” he said of some of the more lewd postings.

Some say the burn books are a modern version of playground taunts and that people simply should ignore them or block them.

Ephrata police Sgt. David Shupp said his department has not received calls about the Ephrata burn book. He said it would be difficult to find the manpower to police these types of internet problems.

“You can fix 10 of these, and 20 more are coming tomorrow,” he said. “It just keeps coming. Kids just keep doing stupid things.”

Manheim Township police Sgt. Thomas Rudzinski said he was not aware of any calls to police about a burn book targeting the township’s school.

Burn books recently started popping up here and quickly attracted large followings. Manheim Township’s burn book had more than 400 students following it when it was taken down Aug. 15.

Students have been both delighted—“Whoever is behind this I kinda wanna shake yr hand” is what someone posted on the Manheim Central burn book—and combative—“I know a lot of people that love me,” posted a student who had been called out on the site.

In some communities, students are fighting back by starting alternative sites. Someone started the “Warwick friend book” Twitter account that also names students, but compliments them for being “super hot,” “a great dancer,” and “gorgeous.”

Emily McNaughton is a 2012 Elizabethtown High School graduate. As of Aug. 16, no one had started a burn book targeting her school, but she feared it might just be a matter of time.
“I just started seeing them last night because everyone was talking about it,” she said. “Some people thought it was funny. I actually find it very immature.”

She hopes the police prosecute the accounts that go over the line.

“Social networking is great, but it’s not when it’s used for all the wrong purposes,” she said.

Some upset viewers apparently are taking their complaints directly to Twitter and filing reports about the accounts. Twitter has shut down most of the local burn books in just the past few days.

Twitter’s press office did not return an eMail asking for comments on burn book accounts.

Manheim police Chief Joe Stauffer reported two Manheim burn books to Twitter himself after a borough councilman called to alert him to the accounts.

Manheim and other schools have had several versions of burn books. One gets taken down, and another one pops up in its place.

Burn books have been around for years in different formats. Formerly called “slam books,” they used to be a spiral-bound notebook where someone would post a question and pass it around in school for others to write an answer. Insults also were usually written in the book.

The burn book was featured prominently in “Mean Girls,” which chronicles the comeuppance of a girls’ clique called the Plastics.

The movie’s burn book was pink, and a photo of it is often posted as the icon for similar accounts on Twitter, which has hundreds of burn book accounts.

Schools in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and other areas also have been targeted by burn book accounts, according to online news accounts.

Many people are hoping the fad is short-lived.

“Harassment is harassment, no matter how you look at it,” Schofield said.

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