Two weeks ago, a group of students from one of Jerusalem's most prestigious junior high schools was called out of class, before their classmates' stunned eyes.
One by one, the students gathered somberly in their school library. Something in the severe face of their vice-principal hinted that this was leading to a disciplinary measure. A glance around the room was enough to see that these students were far from being the rowdiest in the class.
Some of them bit their fingernails in anticipation, as potential reasons for their punishment raced through their heads. But not one expected to be accused of forming a hate group against a fellow student on the Facebook social networking site.
Each had responded to another classmate's invitation on Facebook to join the group, but all said that they had never dreamed it to be a real hate forum.
"We joined out of curiosity," they defended themselves. "It happened a long time ago. It wasn't for real."
"They didn't understand the severity of their actions," one mother said. She added that the thought of her son joining a 'hate group' shocked her to the core, as hearing those words inspired thoughts of anti-Semitism and racism. "I told him that, in real life, groups like that operate in Europe against Jews and immigrants. I asked him how he would feel if he were to be ostracized simply for being Jewish. That's when he understood."
While no threats of ostracism were found on the group's Web site - aside from the group's insulting headline - mocking comments and taunts hurled at that student's expense were posted in abundance.
The victimized student's father paid a visit to the local police station, threatening to press charges against the children involved. Then the school took action.
The students summoned to the library were given a light sentence of an in-school suspension, and instantly became heroes for the day. They were also ordered to speak to their classmates of the various hazards of Web surfing.
The student who established the group was suspended for a full day suspension.
Meanwhile, the school's administration said that it has uncovered other hate groups in the wake of that situation.
In another Jerusalem school, a similar event turned out quite differently. This time the target was a member of the teaching staff, and the Facebook content was much harsher.
As soon as that group was discovered, the targeted teacher lectured the class to which the offending students belonged, explaining the 'dos and don'ts' of Web surfing. Founding a hate group is a libelous offense, she told them, one that could possibly entail criminal consequences. The offending students told the teacher they were underage and thus did not bear any criminal responsibility.
A mother of one of the students appeared at the classroom door not long after the discussion began, demanding that her son be let outside. Apparently, the student had contacted his mother via text message during the lecture.
The mother told both the teacher and the class adviser that she had been aware of her son's group and saw nothing wrong with it. Ultimately, the students at that school went unpunished. According to the teacher, the staff "understood that if the parents were going to be dismissive of the affair, there wasn't anything else we could do."
Such sentiments of hate are not uncommon in virtual juvenilia. Wandering the mean Internet streets populated by teenagers quickly brings up several hate groups directed at both teachers and fellow classmates. In addition, many cases of Web-bullying have been reported, with blogs and Facebook pages overrun by nasty comments.
The leading site Israblog alone contains more than 400 hate groups, specifically designated to the expression of negative feelings against a single person. A YouTube search of "Yaldei Kafot" (Beating kids) brought out several video clips of student violence, as well as pictures and videos displaying of both students and teachers showing various expressions of disrepect. "Children have been known to upload inappropriate pictures of teachers," one teacher said.
Concern is now growing that children - raising themselves behind closed doors and in front of their computers - may be turning into unrestrained monsters. Pranks directed at schoolteachers and students ostracized by their peers have always been common features of school-life. What has changed, perhaps, is the breadth of hate circulation.
"That's the power of the Web," says Tami Sa'ar, a senior ethics instructor in the Ministry of Education. "If someone uploads a girl's Photoshop-edited nude photos, the whole world can seen it. It's the same kind of violence, to the 10th power."
According to an Education Ministry poll of students in the fifth, eighth, and twelfth grades taken last year shows, 30 percent of teenagers reported hateful messages or offensive material being distributed among their classmates. It is safe to assume that the actual figures are higher. Additionally, one-third of respondents said they saw no reason for alarm. Eighty percent of respondents said they would inform an adult in case of Internet abuse, while 70 percent claimed their parents take no interest in their Web-surfing habits.
One student actually uncovered a hate group about his brother after being invited to join, his mother claimed. "I don't know anything about social networks," she added. "We were all badly shaken."
While children have always been cruel to one another, in the past they have tended to hide their worlds from adults. However, the explosion of has made it harder for them to cover their tracks, and more and more stories are leaking out.
"We deliberated the best way to respond," a victimized student's mother said. "But I'm pleased we didn't tell him to just let it pass. I think the school was forced to recognize what was going on as a result by pressuring the school to act." According to her the school ought to have known about the phenomenon sooner and initiate preventive actions. "It's the violence of this generation. Geek violence."
Another mother, Nurit, claims her 12-year old daughter suffers from Web-abuse instigated by her fellow classmates, adding that, "they hate everything these days. It's the single most common word in their vocabulary. How could such a powerful word become so marginalized?"
"Children can't tell right from wrong, legal from illegal, as schools look on," she added. According to the mother, one of her daughter's classmates regularly left abusive comments on her daughter's blog as she was approaching the seventh grade.
"Just as everyone was settling into their social niche, she began being abused, something which had a profound effect on her social status, so I decided to involve the school," said Nurit.
But instead of acting as educational authorities, said Nurit, schools are passing the responsibility on to parents. "They encourage computer-use, they provide the tools and should also provide rules of behavior. Apply education in computer classes too."
The Education Ministry's information and ethics division of has a slew of slideshows explaining the rights and wrongs of Internet use, and also organizes workshops for teachers. But issue is far from being a top priority, according to Dorit Bachar, chief supervisor for Internet ethics in the ministry.
According to the Jerusalem teacher who targeted by a hate group, however, that the problem lays much deeper than just priority-setting: "Schools ignore the issue because they know that the students are much more advanced than us in this virtual world. It's just too daunting."
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