By LINDSAY GLADU, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 16, 2014
ATLANTA—St. Pius X High School principal Steve Spellman reached out to parents via email May 5 and then again May 7 on 11 Alive to combat the app uMentioned.
The smartphone app was being used by some students to gossip anonymously about classmates and teachers.
“Some of it was vulgar and vile,” Spellman said. “I just decided I’m not going to tolerate it.”
So he sent out an email informing parents of the situation and urging them to remove the app from their child’s phone and other devices.
“I believe sunlight is a great disinfectant,” he said about his choice to send the email.
Spellman also banned the app from the school’s wireless Internet network.
After downloading uMentioned, users can choose their school and begin posting text or photos with captions anonymously.
The free app is marketed to college students as “the fastest way to stay connected on campus” for the “juiciest stories, darkest secrets and funniest moments.”
Much like Facebook, uMentioned has trickled down to the high school level. UMentioned and similar apps like Yik Yak are being banned in schools across the globe because of their ability to turn ugly fast. Earlier this year, three U.S. schools were locked down in separate incidents because of anonymous threats posted on Yik Yak.
About 130 students and teachers were singled out on uMentioned’s St. Pius X feed. Many of the posts contained derogatory comments. All of the negative comments associated with the school have since been removed from the feed.
St. Pius X chaplain Father Michael Silloway called it “verbal garbage” and “disappointing.”
UMentioned made its debut on the campus about a month ago. Some students were shocked to see the bullying-type behavior and reported it to the administration.
A handful of victims, both students and teachers, sought out Father Silloway for counseling and encouragement.
Shutting down the app was easy, but revealing the culprits behind the online attacks wasn’t. Since uMentioned functions under the veil of anonymity, St. Pius administrators had some investigating to do. Screen shots of the posts and photos revealed some of the users behind the hurtful comments.
Disciplinary action was taken against the students that have been caught, Spellman said.
The principal also took measures to heighten awareness on ethical Internet usage.
“These kids are exposed to more than we’ve ever been exposed to in history as far as what’s available to them on a technical device,” Spellman said. “What they don’t realize is that these pictures could surface back up at their 20th and 30th class reunion. They’re not going to go away. That’s our job as educators to protect them.”
This past fall, St. Pius X had a similar social media bullying issue arise, but not on the same scale, Spellman said.
“We could identify the problem in the past,” he said. “This is totally anonymous and difficult to wrap our hands around.”
Over the past two years, the administration has held assemblies to educate their students on the effects of cyberbullying, using social media in an ethical and moral manner and protecting their online reputation.
In terms of faith, Father Silloway said the school will continue to charge its students with working out their problems respectfully and face to face.
After this particular episode, the school is also considering revising its student cell phone use policy. Currently, students are allowed to have their smartphones on their person in class, but the phones are supposed to be used for educational purposes only.
The faculty has plans to discuss new policy ideas over the summer break.
High school bullying has always been a problem though, Father Silloway said.
To put it in perspective, Father Silloway said the “slam book,” a spiral-bound notebook passed around schools and used to write defamatory remarks about other students, is the original social networking method of bullying and has been around since the 1960s.
“As long as there’s been teenagers, there’s been bullying,” Father Silloway said. “We’re not out on a witch hunt, but we want the students to know that those types of behaviors are not acceptable.”
Principal Spellman’s appearance on 11 Alive to speak out against the app in secondary and pre-secondary schools led to about 280 positive emails, phone calls and Twitter responses praising Spellman and the school for taking action.
Many St. Pius X parents were not even aware that uMentioned existed. Spellman asked them to have a meaningful conversation with their children about ethical use of technology. School officials from surrounding areas also called Spellman to thank him for alerting them to the potential problem.
“We’re all in this together to educate kids,” Spellman said.
Overall, the atmosphere at St. Pius X is a kind, caring and nurturing one, Spellman said, and he wants to keep it that way.
“We take pride in what we have here at St. Pius, and we’re not going to do anything that detracts from the dignity of the human person.”