Searching for a teachable moment in Torrington

Torrington -- As TV cameras persist outside their doors nearly a week after vicious online comments about an alleged statutory rape victim went viral, Torrington Public School officials are wrestling with difficult questions.

Is there a pervasive culture of misbehavior within the Torrington High School football team, which dealt with a hazing scandal last fall, and now, two of whose players are charged with statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls?

When teens took to Twitter to blame the alleged victims and call them names like "whore" and "snitch," does that constitute "cyberbullying" that needs to be investigated by schools under Connecticut law?

Should school administrators more closely monitor student activity online, or at least have a policy in place to take action against mean-spirited posts on social media?

None of those questions have easy answers. But in an interview with The Mirror and WNPR Tuesday, Superintendent Cheryl Kloczko and high school Principal Joanne Creedon said they're taking the necessary strong steps to try.

"I am hoping that through all of this pain that we're suffering right now, that there will be positives that come out of it. There have to be," Creedon said. An hour later, she was to meet with students responsible for some of the posts, and then have an "emergency meeting" with school staff.

Since news of the scandal broke last week, this small city in northwestern Connecticut has been in a state of shock. The statutory rape charges against two 18-year-old football players at the high school were first reported by the Torrington Register-Citizen. The paper also published public posts on Twitter, made by users who identified themselves as students at the school, calling the alleged 13-year-old victims "whores" and suggesting they should not have been "hanging out with 18-year-old guys."

National media quickly picked up the story, and cameras showed up everywhere. Another unnamed 17-year-old has also been arrested on statutory rape charges, and school and police officials say more arrests could be on the way.

"There's a lot of heartache in Torrington about the city being portrayed this way," said Matt DeRienzo, an editor at the Register-Citizen with a child in Torrington schools. "[And] that this could happen in a town that they care about."

The shock was only reinforced last Friday when, at an annual fundraising event held at the school, a group of students posed for a photo in support of one of the football players accused of rape. They posted the picture publicly on the photo-sharing website Instagram, and more tweets followed blaming the victims.

"I mean nowadays girls like that girl stay opening there legs just for D so yea!" wrote one Twitter user.

School officials have come under fire for their silence on the case. But Kloczko and Creedon say they're doing everything possible to protect student confidentiality, while at the same time improving the climate in their schools and moving forward.

"As an administrator for a school want to keep all children safe," said Kloczko, who is a graduate of Torrington High School.

"...As a parent, and as a woman."

Testing Connecticut's new bullying laws

Few have illusions that the situation in Torrington is unique. Comparisons have been drawn between this small city of 36,000 and Steubenville, Ohio, where two 16-year-old football players were recently convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. That case also gained notoriety because of online postings about the crime on social media sites, including public videos later used against the perpetrators.

"In Torrington, someone caught a lot of really ugly tweets and it got big," said Barbara Spiegel. "So that's unfortunate. But it could be anywhere." Spiegel directs the Susan B. Anthony Project in Torrington, which aims to educate students about healthy relationships and prevent sexual abuse and violence.

Within Connecticut, Torrington has shown itself to be a test case of how the state's relatively new bullying and school climate law is playing out.

"Each school has engaged the law at different levels," said Steve Hernandez, attorney for Connecticut's Commission on Children. The commission advises the state legislature and helped draft the law, which expands the definition of bullying and those responsible for reporting it. The law also requires schools to create "climate committees" and provide spaces for students and staff to talk about their concerns related to issues like bullying. The law, however, does place limitations on when school officials can "address" online speech being made by students at their school. In an effort to protect students' first amendment rights, legislators in 2011 passed a law that said school officials could only address online bullying if it "creates a hostile environment for a student at school, infringes on a student's rights at school, or substantially disrupts the education process or the school's orderly operation."

Based on the events in Torrington, Hernandez said, it's clear that the district there has more work to do in order to fully comply with the law.

"There isn't a climate [in Torrington] to discuss important issues about rape...consent...these are very difficult issues to talk about even in a vacuum," Hernandez said. When they come up "on an emergency basis...then you have the crises that you have."

In fact, Torrington students are all exposed to curricula on cyberbullying, healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence through Spiegel's Susan B. Anthony Project, which has counterparts across the state.

"Last year, we were in every grade at Torrington High School three times," Spiegel said. This school year, her staff have seen 787 students at the 1,100-student school.

Ninth-graders learned about "cyberbullying and social media safety." Tenth-graders got a lesson on "boundaries and consent." Seniors heard about "healthy relationships."

The painfully obvious correlation between those courses and the situation Torrington is dealing with today show that one isolated exposure isn't enough, Hernandez said. The law goes "a step further." Spaces to discuss sensitive issues have to be "permanent," he said.

"One assembly doesn't help if that's all that the school is doing."

Torrington school officials agree. Educators who work for the Susan B. Anthony Project will be back in schools starting today to reinforce their lessons for all students.

The issue has already been a hot topic at the high school. Creedon recalled an English class where a discussion about gender equality in a book turned into the question of whether the case of statutory rape and online comments shows a problem with gender equality in Connecticut and the United States.

"Now the iron is hot," she said. "It's time to make sure that we cycle through this information now...when they are most likely to be open to the information."

The wider universe of online social media has also been active on the topic. The online "hacktivist" group "Anonymous," known for hacking popular websites and posting troves of information online, encouraged followers on Twitter to donate to the Susan B. Anthony Project. As of Monday, Spiegel said, the group had received $300 in donations.

Need for new policies and procedures

As Torrington school officials start to talk with students about the impacts of sexual violence and bullying, they'll also have to address whether better policies could have prevented such events or made them easier to deal with.

Perhaps, for instance, schools should be regularly monitoring social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to deal with problems before a student is forced to bring them up -- or worse, before they end up in the paper.

"Children should not be in charge of advocating for themselves in circumstances that are inherently imbalanced," Hernandez said. While no school has the resources to constantly check students' behavior online, it's worth considering a sweep of social media sites in the wake of an incident that affects the school community.

"They can't be everywhere at all times, but that's why our law calls for this collaboration and cooperation [between adults]," Hernandez said.

Torrington officials have created a task force to "brainstorm suggestions for what we can do as a school, right now," Creedon said. The committee includes counselors, athletic directors, staff from the Susan B. Anthony Project and others.

Keeping better records of bullying cases may be another part of the solution. While elementary and middle schools carefully log investigations of bullying into a log required by the new Connecticut law, Torrington High often incorporates them into its regular "discipline" log. That makes it hard for the state to gather accurate data on bullying from all schools.

Creedon said she might revisit the way the high school keeps records of bullying investigations.

A more complete student code of conduct might also be necessary. Torrington High School athletics has already been revisiting its policies on student athlete behavior. That was prompted by a hazing scandal in the fall but now takes on more urgency since it has come to light that a player was allowed to stay on the team last year despite facing felony robbery charges. He is also one of the alleged perpetrators of the statutory rapes.

"He shouldn't have been allowed to remain on the team," Kloczko said. "...We made a mistake."

For now, though, Torrington officials say it is clear that bullying or mean behavior is at least somewhat the responsibility of the school, whether it happens on or off-campus.

"It used to be that administrators were responsible for what happened in their school, and at school events," Creedon said. "And now, we're really responsible 24/7."