This is a strange story that appeals to skepticism at least as much as alarm. It involves an 11-year-old Florida girl, claims of “cyberbullying,” the vague possibility of a rape and the slightly more credible possibility of an all-around hoax. You’ve probably heard of it by now, and if you’re a fan of ABC’s Good Morning America, your ears must’ve done a double-take on July 22 when a report on the affair signed off from Palm Coast. That had some people locally, including some school officials, exchanging emails, word and worries about another case of cyberbullying, one of the most over-hyped phenomenons of the age of false connectivity.
First, Jessi Slaughter, who is actually Jessi Leonhardt, the 11-year-old daughter of Gene and Diane Leonhardt, is not from Palm Coast. She is reportedly from Marion County. Why ABC ended its report about her by tagging it from Palm Coast is not clear. Maybe they didn’t have electricity in Marion County that day, though geography has never been television news reporters’ strength, especially on dressed-up tabloid shows like Good Morning America.
Second, much of the story’s veracity is in question.
This is what’s known: Jessi supposedly attends middle school. She spends an enormous amount of time online, posting videos of herself to various, and variously tawdry, sites, with her parents’ blessing. (If Marion County were Iwo Jima, picture a red flag rising now.) She herself is tawdry. Terrible to have to say that about an 11 year old, but tawdriness isn’t age-specific, especially when it’s taught and condoned by the people who should be protecting a child.
The thing about cyber-bullying is that, unlike the live kind, cyber-bullying by definition involves a measure of invitation: if you’re not out there, you’re not a target. People can’t sidle up to your computer and attack you. You have to have put out an item–a posting, a tweet, a video–with your return address to generate the reaction. And if you do, you bear a measure of responsibility for the consequences. That measure of responsibility grows in proportion to the extent to which you continue to generate responses.
That’s why most people post: to generate a reaction. Any reaction. Adolescents and pre-adolescents whose sense of judgment is disproportionately whacked at that age anyway don’t gauge the sort of reaction they may get. Sometimes it gets out of hand. But this isn’t like the poor kid merely walking down the hallway at school, where the kid is required to be by law, and getting bullied out of nowhere. Cyber-bullying has a starting point; that point is usually the person who ends up being cyber-bullied. Jessi posted her rants. She got bullied in return. Instead of clacking off the stream of foulness–cutting herself off from the sites that got her the supposedly unwanted attention–she went to Defcon 4 and posted a tirade that, in the half-mad post-Columbine mentality of policing anything and everything, should have, but didn’t, get the police’s attention, at least not initially.
Here’s what she said, in part; keep in mind, this is an 11 year old talking, in rural Marion County, what passes for good, Christian, whitebread, heartland Florida:
It’s Jessi Slaughter here and this is to all of you fucking haters. OK? Guess what. You just are bitches. You know what? You don’t faze me. And this doing this, Jessi can tell (sic.), I read the comments, I read the messages, I reply to them, but you know what, I don’t give a fuck. I’m happy as my life, OK? And if you can;t realize that, ok, and stop hating, you know what? I’ll pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy, ok? ’cause you hater bitches, you’re just like jealous of me. You’re saying you’re jealous of me because one, I’m more pretty than you, I have more friends, more people like me, I have more fans, ummm, yeah, and all that shit. I can;t think of any more right now because I’m brain dead. It looks like 10:19 in the morning. I just woke up like, midnight?
Naturally, the clip provoked a redoubling of attacks, grave attacks from the supremely weird and anarchic 4chan.org, which is what a cyber-spittoon looks like, including death threats and threats of violence, which generated yet another video from her, one where she cries her eyes out, with some earnestness, though not without a few strange touches–and that’s not a reference to what made that video famous, namely, the dad popping the equivalent of a verbal Glock at the camera. Jessi begins with her usual sign-on. She may be in tears and seemingly crushed, but she doesn’t forget the on-air talent’s spot-on, spotlight sign-on: This is Jessi Slaughter, using her nom de air no less. She’s wearing a revealing top. Her eyes check the camera. She straightens her hair. One wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d stopped briefly to re-apply make-up. As it is, she makes sure to dab, not smear, the tears. There’s an edge of Mel Gibson Narcissism here, not to mention Mel Gibson genes in the background, considering the fatherly decibels. But here’s the oddest thing: The dad delivers his rant and threats at the bullies, the mom is in the room, then both leave.
No hint of perhaps taking their daughter away from the screen, of turning off the computer, shutting down her access to all those sites, better controlling where she goes online and what she does. She’s in her bedroom: she obviously has an Internet connection in her room. At this point the issue isn’t Jessi and her bullies anymore. It’s Jessi’s complicit parents–a lesson in what not to do with children and the Internet. Instead, Good Morning America invited the entire bunch to chat up the story.
But here’s why they did nothing: they must be fascinated by this too. In their appearance on Good Morning America together they said they wouldn’t be taking the Internet away from their daughter. They said they might sit her down and give her a few lessons. The day before that interview the mother was interviewed by momlogic.com. She claimed oblivion when it came to her daughter’s activities: “Jessica has a webcam and a computer. All of her friends have webcams, too, so they video chat with each other. I knew she’d made a video to apply for ‘America’s Got Talent.’ She sings and sent an audition video in. I had no idea she was making other videos. I have seen her chatting with her friends, but not making videos.”
Meanwhile the Marion County Sheriff’s Office is knocking at the Leonhardts’ door with anonymous accusations that their daughter was involved in a prostitution ring and other similarly rank claims. And there’s the story behind the story, the girl’s involvement with a Techno band called Blood on the Floor (not to be confused with Fleetwood Mac’s song) and accusations that the band’s lead singer, Dahvie Vanity had some involvement with Jessi.
The Leonhardts may have their problems. But beyond them, the danger is for stories like this to become part of the larger, and largely mythical, matter of “cyberbullying”–a matter that needs to have quote marks around it until proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the sort of story school board members latch on to and add to their stew of anecdotes before translating them into policies; Volusia County schools did so in 2008. Flagler has its own anti-cyber-bullying policy.
Volusia’s defined cyber-bullying this way: “A course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person(s), causing substantial emotional distress to that person(s) and serving no legitimate purpose.” In or out of school? Who’s to judge between the usual foul-mouthed exchanges adolescents revel in or the more aggravated kind? Who’s to monitor it all? Who’s to decide where the line is between expression and provocation?
When every child has a cell, a laptop, an iPad, a direct connection to the entire planet, it’s already too late by the time that child engages or is the victim of questionable behavior. Why is that much unfettered technology in the hands of children who can’t gauge its power and consequences, and where is the monitoring before issues occur? Like the Jessi Slaughter/Leonhardt story, that fear, too, may be an exaggeration. If 11 year olds can be taught to navigate the streets of New York City on their way to and from school (and they can), 11 year olds can be taught to navigate what amounts to the same, at times meaner, streets online. It takes awareness. It doesn’t take a village: it takes one person, two if you have that luxury. Parenting isn’t a mystery. Nor is it an art. It’s about showing up.