Monitoring online behavior a vexing problem

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In the fall of 2005, a student at Mercyhurst College posted on his Facebook page a picture of himself holding a gun in his dorm room.

After being alerted to the posting by another student, officials at the Erie school suspended the young man -- as they would with any other student caught violating school rules -- but they also did something extra.

Administrators realized that as experienced as students were online, they were still not completely educated on online behavior and safety. So, early the next year, Mercyhurst became one of the nation's first schools to issue students brochures on online civility and protecting themselves against cyber-stalkers.

The yin and yang of the Internet are again in play with Monday's fatal shooting spree at Virginia Tech. While, on one hand, students used Facebook and other social sites to contact their families and collectively mourn, alleged shooter Cho Seung-Hui reportedly also went online to harass female Virginia Tech students in 2005, leading to a police visit and a stay in a mental hospital.

Figuring out how to monitor illegal online behavior, without offending students for whom the Internet is a way of life, has become a vexing issue on campuses nationwide.

"We don't want to get into a situation where we're policing Facebook. That's not what we should be doing, and students really feel violated if it is happening -- akin to room-to-room searches anytime you got the desire to," said Joe Howard, Mercyhurst's assistant director of residence life and student conduct.

"Our position is, we aren't actively looking for things, but as things are brought to our attention we will certainly deal with them."

Students are so eager to start the networking offered by online social sites that they activate Facebook pages before they even get to college: For example, 733 people are already part of the site's page for the University of Pittsburgh class of 2011.

If they are not careful, that same personal data and public interaction can be used against them.

Police said yesterday that two female Virginia Tech students complained that Mr. Cho harassed them through phone calls and instant messages in 2005. One woman complained to police about it but did not file charges, leaving the matter to the university. Later, Mr. Cho talked about suicide and was taken to a mental health facility.

One of the ways Mr. Cho got data on female students was through Facebook, one of his former roommates toald CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" yesterday.

"He was a little weird," the roommate said. "After you know he'd been stalking girls and looking at their Facebooks and learning everything about them ... sometimes at night when I go to sleep, I'd be a little nervous."

Mr. Cho, who killed 32 students and then himself Monday, didn't shoot either of the stalking victims, police said.

Colleges with long-standing codes of conduct have been integrating oversight of students' online behavior with campus police, and trying to educate students on privacy and propriety issues.

Virginia Tech seems to have done the right things in following up the Cho cyber-stalking complaints. The school has detailed information on preventing and responding to cyber-stalking at its "Stop Abuse" office, and police there did follow-up on student complaints on the matter.

Campus administrators and police everywhere have trouble staying ahead of cyber-stalkers and other online criminals, said Kacy Silverstein, the associate director of Vanderbilt University's "Project Safe," which hosted a campus forum on Facebook cyber-stalking in February.

"Unfortunately -- and I don't think it's the fault of police or the legal system -- all of us have trouble staying caught up with technology, and I don't think the legal system has yet caught up with cyber-stalking," she said. "So that makes it difficult to prosecute."

Tim McNulty can be reached at or 412-263-1581.


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