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Facebook page's profile pic has Elmbrook special ed parents feeling stunned

Parents upset by number of 'friends' site's owner has

Jan. 4, 2012

A Facebook page with a profile picture that pokes fun at Special Olympians has drawn the ire of parents of special education students. These outraged Elmbrook families say the page is an example of cyber-bullying.

The page, "Brookfield Biitches," features a photo of a Special Olympian running track with a text overlay that reads: "Arguing on the Internet is like running in the Special Olympics. Even if you win, you're still a retard."

Compounding the anger is the high volume of current and former Elmbrook high school students who are "friends" of the page. As of Tuesday, the number stood at 556.

Parents, officials offended

Parents and the district became aware of the page in late summer.

"We've known about this page for awhile, and obviously it is a very negative situation," said Sally Flaschberger, a special education parent who is a member of the district's special education advisory board and an advocacy specialist at the nonprofit Disability Rights Wisconsin. "I have talked with other parents who are upset about this, and we wonder if parents whose children are part of the page even know about it."

The special education parents NOW spoke with were not comfortable were not comfortable speaking out publicly, but one expressed their thoughts on the condition of anonymity.

"So we take our kids to school and we think they are safe and we feel like the community is generally a friendly one and has our backs," the parent said. "We take our kids to Brookfield East or Central football games and basketball games. Then you come across a stupid Facebook page like Brookfield Biitches, which 500-plus students - many of whom you have known since preschool - have friended, and basically you feel sick to your stomach.

"... As a parent, you no longer feel safe, and you no longer feel as if the community has your back, and you certainly don't feel like taking your kid to cheer on the Brookfield Central or East football games."

District gets involved

Even though the Facebook site is outside the purview of the Elmbrook School District, special parents want the district to get involved, Flaschberger said.

That thought is shared by Superintendent Matt Gibson, who said the district has attempted to contact Facebook.

"Actions like these that happen outside of the district still bleed into the school system," he said.

Brookfield Central Associate Principal Jim Darin attempted to contact Facebook earlier in the school year in hopes the company would do something about the page.

"I was originally informed by a parent in late September or October," Darin said. "She described the site and said she was offended, and I certainly was offended by the profile picture."

Facebook has not responded to the district's inquiry, he said.

Darin also has met with students who told him they friended "Brookfield Biitches" when it was a gossip page, and only later did it add more offensive material.

Unintended consequence

Caroline Mooney thinks that may have happened in her case. The 2010 Brookfield East graduate works as an assistant teacher at a New Berlin day care and preschool and is pursuing a college degree. She was surprised to hear that she was part of the "friends" contingent.

"I don't know anything about the page," Mooney said, adding that she never intended to be part of a site with that type of message.

A tricky cyberspace landscape

There's a cautionary tale woven into this story, Internet consultant Pat McKenna, president of Wauwatosa-based MojoWeb Productions, said.

"Yes, Facebook pages and groups are living, breathing organisms," McKenna said. "The original topical focus can easily develop into a free-for-all."

McKenna said it will be difficult for any one person or school district to get Facebook to delete a page.

"(It's) not likely, unless something criminal or tragic has occurred as a result of the user or owner behavior," he said. "The company does not want to be in the business of monitoring or censoring content and warning and suspending users for unpopular or offensive posts."

McKenna has pointed out that it is relatively easy for a Facebook user to "unfriend" a page by simply following the friends pull-down menu.

Bullying not acceptible

Counselors and other district professionals are trying to spread the message that bullying is not tolerated in any form.

The district's formal written Position on Bullying gives examples such as "teasing, put-downs, cruel rumors, false accusations, hazing and name calling." The position also recognizes that those actions can be directed to an individual or a group and transmitted via an off-campus computer.

"As a school we will have to go through parents and almost on a yearly basis," he said. "We have good kids, but good kids sometimes make mistakes. We are going to take some steps at the high school or district level to educate parents, because we need them to get involved."

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