Stop the Internets! | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Stop the Internets!

Kids at St. Thomas Aquinas High School are learning a tough lesson about It isn't really their space at all.

The Archdiocese of Miami, which owns the private Catholic school, has taken over the networking Internet site, at least as far as St. Thomas students are concerned. One student has left the school, a dozen were suspended, and untold others have been disciplined internally after school administrators were alerted to what they considered objectionable material on the immensely popular site full of web pages devoted to friends, photos, and personal information.

The Sun-Sentinel sort of broke the story about the MySpace imbroglio on February 4, though it had no information on the offensive posts, describing them only as "inappropriate language and comment" and "mean." The newspaper followed that with an editorial this past Thursday praising the school for the crackdown and chiding parents for "shirking their duties" and allowing their children to engage in "tawdry behavior."

"It's a sad statement on society that a South Florida school was forced to serve as a parental authority...," the Sentinel opined. "But someone has to protect kids, and St. Thomas Aquinas High School deserves credit for stepping up... Too bad the public schools are too mired in the morass of legalities and political correctness to follow suit."

Unfortunately, the newspaper didn't mix any facts in with its little sermon. Like any good moralizer, the editorialist didn't bother to inform its reading flock precisely what it was supposed to be sanctimonious about.

And the scant information the Sentinel did provide was substantially wrong. The offensive remarks were directed at a teacher, not other students. The whole ordeal was started by one sophomore girl who didn't like a math teacher. The student started a group post on MySpace dedicated to dissing the teacher. In one of her missives, she wrote that the teacher should "die," according to the sources.

The school found out about the group site — and then the little inquisition began.

The girl who started the group wasn't suspended for several days, as reported by the Sentinel. She withdrew from the school. I don't have a big problem with that. But 12 other teens who signed onto the group were punished as well with suspension, and some of them posted no remarks at all.

"One of the students who was suspended didn't even belong to the group," 17-year-old senior Chelsea Wilder tells me. "Her picture was on one of the pictures that was posted there."

But, contrary to what was reported in the Sentinel, that was just the beginning, according to students. School administrators began searching for trouble. They found students making obscene gestures and others who were smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages in the pictures.

For those offenses, students say administrators levied internal suspensions, causing the students to miss class and receive F's for the day. Again, some were disciplined for simply being in photographs that showed others engaging in the "tawdry" behavior. I've heard that anywhere from 50 to 200 students were disciplined.

"They cracked down a little too much," Wilder says. "I guess they got a little power-happy."

St. Thomas graduate and current Vanderbilt freshman David Hall says he's learned from some students directly involved that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was called to investigate the case as well.

Hall, who was the school's salutatorian last year, responded by creating a new group on MySpace devoted to criticizing the administration and writing a letter to the Sun-Sentinel decrying the school's "intrusion into the privacy and freedom of speech of individual students."

Silly Hall. He's all worked up about those stupid legalities — you know, like the First Amendment. Students have painted the school's principal, Tina Jones, as sort of the Big Nurse of the whole situation, so I tried to call her. A secretary told me all questions had to go through the Archdiocese of Miami, which owns the school. But archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta refused to discuss what had happened at the school, though her office denied that any students beyond the original 13 had been disciplined.

"Your article should be on MySpace and on the problems MySpace is creating for the children," she told me. "And parents need to get involved. MySpace is not available at the school. The children who are participating in MySpace and who are writing inappropriate things and using inappropriate language are doing it outside school."

I asked her what right the school has to punish kids who put their whacky ideas on MySpace if it wasn't done at the school.

"It was inappropriate activity and comments, and we have a code of conduct," she said. "You have to live and act as a Christian. If you are saying anything unkind about anyone, it's not an act of Christianity."

So anything a student does that's not Christ-like, whether inside the school or out of it, is punishable at St. Thomas and the other 71 schools the archdiocese owns in South Florida.

It all seems like a case of Catholic school marms gone wild. But they do have the right, since it's a private school. Parents have every right to enter the fray as well. But public schools, thankfully, can't follow suit, no matter what the Sentinel wants. Personal liberty, even for kids, means too much for too many people to let Big Brother go that far.

What is MySpace? It's millions of self-commercials. It's a virtual meat market. It's a place full of impromptu poetry and provocative photographs and graphics. It is pop art and can be sublime or stupid, depending on the person behind the page. And if you surf around on some of the high school groups and see enough 16-year-old local girls posing as sexy as they can in next-to-no clothing, you begin to understand why the local church ladies freaked out.

Note to kids: Either privatize your account or take off anything from your MySpace page that you're not prepared for your parents or teachers to see. They're wising up. Remember that people are watching (yes, some of them are predators), and they might make you pay dearly for your thoughts and feelings.

Like Principal Jones.