Glenza and her colleagues then began scouring Twitter to get the student body’s read on these incidents, which is how they unearthed the tweets attacking the alleged rape victim. They also started pressing school officials for information on how they handled bullying and hazing generally. They ran into a brick wall. Officials refused to even disclose the name of the person in charge of Torrington High’s anti-bullying program. (Connecticut law requires every school to have an anti-bullying protocol and appoint an official to oversee it).
Before running the cyber-bullying story, the editorial staff debated publishing screen shots of the tweets and whether to blot out users’ handles and pictures. In the end, they decided that revealing the hecklers identities would spark a much-needed debate about the culture of bullying and rape, and how some students and administrators were helping perpetuate it. As DeRienzo wrote on the Journal Register Company’s blog, Connecticut Newsroom, last Thursday:
By publishing the actual messages, we made this real in a way that writing a story about unnamed kids would not.
We gave the city, the state and the country a taste of how horrifying and uncomfortable it has been for two 13-year-old girls over the past month who can’t escape the bullying and the nasty comments whether they’re at school or online.
Vaguely summarizing this kind of bullying, identities protected, would have allowed the school district to continue to ignore the problem and the community to assume that it was “someone else’s kid.”
But the fact is that “good kids,” from “good homes”—honor roll students, athletes, male, female—participated in this stuff, and showed a fundamental and staggeringly dangerous misunderstanding about rape, consent and how to treat other people.
The post was part of the paper’s broader policy of transparency. In 2010, the 7,000-circulation daily became the first news organization in the country to transform its newsroom into a public café, with and coffee and pastries, and free public Wi-Fi. Torrington residents are free to roam the newsroom floor, attend daily story meetings, or sit around sipping lattes while reporters tap out their stories. (The New York Times describes the scene as a “sort of Starbucks meets ‘Lou Grant.’”)
Almost as soon as the tweets were published, the paper posted a message on its site urging Torrington residents to attend that afternoon’s editorial meeting for a discussion about “how the high school and community can begin to move forward.” While the paper received a stream of angry messages from students, most of the adults who attended the meeting or commented on the story were sympathetic to the victims, and wanted to find a way to deal with the issues raised in the story. “I’ve been very impressed by the reaction and the tenor of the discussion,” DeRienzo says. “There’s been recognition that there’s something wrong, which needs to be addressed.”
In other words, the paper’s reporting had the intended effect.
But as the story spread, the conversation grew more heated. Late Wednesday night, the self-anointed “hacktivist” collective Anonymous threw down its gauntlet, with an online missive warning that it could not “be held responsible for what happens” to anyone who bullies the victim:
If a bully pops up, it’s likely that some Anon is going to dox them, they’ll be called out on a national level, and for the rest of their lives whenever someone Googles their name you’ll see that they bullied a victim of rape.
Many of the Torrington students whose tweets were published shut down their Twitter accounts or switched the settings to private, but those who remained active were bombarded with angry messages.