Last Thursday, county schools Superintendent Matt Haas read a letter of apology to the community from the Albemarle teen who made a racist threat against CHS students. Joao Pedro Souza Ribeiro (we know his name because Charlottesville police released it, even though he’s a minor) made his anonymous post on 4chan, an online message board, subsets of which are awash with hate speech from white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
It was previously reported that the 17-year-old was in study hall (presumably at Albemarle High School) and was “bored.” In the letter, he says he deleted the post almost immediately, and was “horrified” to find a screenshot of it online hours later. “I was scared, and my own fear and shame increased when Charlottesville schools were shut down,” he wrote.
What’s less clear is why a student was apparently able to spend his school hours on an internet message board full of hate-filled, white supremacist propaganda. It’s especially ironic given the district’s recent, hard-won decision to ban hate symbols like Confederate and Nazi imagery in its dress code.
Though Haas made other announcements at his press conference about school safety (from a new anonymous reporting app to buzzer and check-in systems), his advice to bored students was to “read a book” instead of making social media threats.
Perhaps this was meant as a joke, but it seems emblematic of the collective shrug with which most public schools have met the very real threat of internet forums that normalize hate speech. As Adam Neufeld of the Anti-Defamation League put it, “Norms are powerful because they influence people’s behaviors. If you see a stream of slurs, that makes you feel
like things are more acceptable.”
Tech leaders (including much-celebrated UVA alums Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, founders of Reddit) have been reluctant to address the way their platforms foment both online harassment and real-world violence. But if our schools want to keep students safe, they need to take responsibility for dealing with this new landscape, by setting boundaries on internet use and, even more importantly, teaching students how modern-day propaganda works. —Laura Longhine