MY TURN - The minute the Facebook site -- called San Pedro Ratchets -- launched last week, some San Pedro High School girls found themselves posted there only in their bras and underwear and targets of alleged sexual exploits.
Comments swarmed in about their bodies and sexuality, officials said, that were "offensive," "raunchy" and "abusive." At least one student refused to return to school after the site went up Dec. 2 as Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, school and law enforcement officials scrambled to take it down.
Within hours of its launch, Buscaino's office was alerted by social media pings -- in particular by a group called San Pedro California -- that called out alarm bells and began filing complaints to no avail on a faceless Facebook requesting the site and two others, San Pedro Hotties and Wilmington Ratchets, be removed, said Branimir Kvartuc, Buscaino's media spokesman.
Around the same time that evening, the councilman received a phone call from his upset sister, Michelle Crow, a teacher at Dana Middle School, who complained one of her former students was on it.
What he saw, Buscaino said, was so offensive that he was immediately moved to action. He later dismissed criticism he was out of his realm of council work and interfering with free speech saying he didn't want to wait for something terrible to happen. It takes a community, he said, including its leaders, to stop such behavior. San Pedro High School principal Jeanette Stevens said without him the site might still be thriving.
"I am not going to wait for a teenager to commit suicide," Buscaino said. "There are a lot of critical issues facing the city. But the last thing I want to do is bury a child because of slander. It was really disgusting.
The site "was slanderous, cyberbullying and some girls were being identified as a "ho" (whore) or comments written were: "I want to do her," said Buscaino, a former Los Angeles police officer known for his work with teens. "It's something no child should ever go through."
As cyberbullying has riveted the nation with some victims committing suicide, the ratchet site was loaded with such slanderous comments, Buscaino's staff said, that they contacted Facebook, law enforcement and Crimes Against Children on the Internet.
Comments from the site -- due to profanity and sexual content -- could not be written here, but it encouraged others to post photos and comments. "Bringin' all the ratchet ...bitches of San Pedro on one page," and "upload all the...ratchet bitches you know from the Dro!" (Dro is a term for San Pedro.)
All three sites were taken down but immediately another site bloomed called South Bay Ratchets. According to the Urban dictionary, ratchets are "a diva, mostly from urban cities and ghettos, that has reason to believe she is every man's eye candy. Unfortunately, she's wrong."
All the sites were removed by Dec. 5, Kvartuc said.
High School principal Stevens said she and her staff got warnings about the site via dozens of text messages, phone calls and emails. A former high school student who was off to college was so perturbed she contacted a school administrator. At least fifty complaints were filed with Facebook, Stevens said, but dealing with "Facebook is like a computer program without a face. It doesn't have contacts where you can call and explain you are a principal or a school administrator trying to protect children."
Some of the photographs, Stevens said, were sexual and said things like: "This person puts out." One photo had a girl laying down on her stomach, her pants pulled back while other girls wrote on her buttocks. It appeared the girl was tied up, she said.
"These are images we don't need to promote," Stevens said. "There was nothing good that was coming out of this. It was demeaning. We had young students who are under age and made poor choices, but it doesn't mean we exploit these poor choices."
Having the help from the councilman, she added, was the big reason the sites were removed because he and his staff knew who to contact and worked with all the agencies involved. In addition, the principal and Kvartuc said it was ironic that the community, using its own social media tools, alerted others to the site and began filing complaints.
"Maybe this is a little bit of norming of a social media tool," Stevens said. "It was whether we took a stand. We stood up. We threw them off the island as a community and I don't know if that's so bad."
The new village watching over youth, said Kvartuc, is the social media pointing out that San Pedro California's "thread" was what brought this to officials' attention. One member Sandra Zuvich wrote: "I can't believe this is even a page on Facebook. I have reported it and so should you! This is bullying at its lowest."
While the school is investigating who was responsible, a few leads have not panned out, Stevens said, adding that she believes it will be handled by the Los Angeles police since it did not happen on campus or during school time.
Facebook officials did not immediately react to the complaint and initially refused to take the site down because its policies had not been abused, Kvartuc said. But as intensely personal comments criticizing the girls bodies piled on, Facebook officials agreed it had become cyberbullying.
In a statement, the company says it takes such abuse seriously.
"We're concerned about any abusive behavior, and have made efforts to promote an environment where everyone of Facebook can connect and share comfortably," said Alison Schumer, who handles child safety and programs for Facebook. "Our policies prohibit the posting of content that bullies or harasses ...
"This team treats reports of harassing and bullying content as a priority."
On his Facebook page, some hailed Buscaino as a hero while others contended he interfered with free speech and had no business being involved in the matter. Some said the girls were to blame because they had allowed such photographs to be taken.
Parents, many argued, need to educate themselves and their children about internet usage.
"I guess I'm the bad guy because I think Joe and the LAPD should be addressing other issues in our community," wrote Raul Martinez. "He might have shut down that page ... but those pics are still out there cause those girls posted them on their page.
"This all goes down to parenting and upbringing. Maybe Joe should tell every parent in San Pedro to check your kids face book, take your kids to church, spend time with your kids...(sic)."
Doug Epperhart, a father of two teenage girls, said he too has concerns that a council member can work to remove internet postings and claims it could become "a slippery slope" leaving politicians with the idea that this could be done elsewhere -- such as against their competitors.
"This is more of the problem of the parents and the school," Epperhart said. "Parents seriously have no clue what their kids are putting out there. Removing the site does not eliminate the problem. It just treats the symptoms of the disease. The district should be able to find out who these kids (who put up the site) are and punish them."
The councilman's actions, however, were largely applauded -- especially by women who say the damage to the girls would remain with them for the rest of their lives and could cause suicidal tendencies.
"Thank goodness!" wrote Layla Cicconi of the site's removal. "That site had my blood boiling all day. I was beginning to wonder if this town actually went to hell in a hand basket. It's really amazing how many idiots think that site was funny. Makes me sad that that Could even be a form of entertainment."
Wrote another woman, Tina Aguilar, "There was also a page on Wilmington Ratchets. Take that off too!!! What amazes me is how so many ppl (sic) think it's funny and just laugh about it. But I bet if it was personal...if your daughter, sister, niece or loved one was on there you wouldn't think it was funny!!! Bullying is not ok!"
(Diana Chapman is a CityWatch contributor and has been a writer/journalist for nearly thirty years. She has written for magazines, newspapers and the best-seller series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. You can reach her at: email@example.com or her website: theunderdogforkids.blogspot.com) –cw