After an offensive and homophobic Twitter account took aim at individual students Monday, hundreds of students and alumni quickly gathered a cohort from Ridgefield and several other towns in Fairfield County — some as far away as Western Massachusetts — to show the bullies who's boss.
And quick it was: With over 500 members just six hours after its inception, membership to the Facebook group "Southern Connecticut High Schools: An End To High School Bullying" steadily rose even after midnight. And by 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the page's membership grew to over 800 members.
RHS senior Sophie Needleman and alumnae Holly Walker (Wellesley College) and Kiera Bloch (Clark University) kickstarted the Facebook page Monday afternoon to combat a sudden onslaught of cyber-bullying behavior from within the Ridgefield community Monday that stemmed from various Twitter accounts.
Walker wrote in the first post on the page:
"It has come to our attention that several twitter accounts have been created in order to single out and bully individuals who are a part of the RHS community. Certainly the most disturbing of these was '@RHSfagoftheday.' Needless to say this is absolutely uncalled for and cannot and will not be tolerated.
Often times Ridgefield doesn’t respond to cyber bullying with the strength and provocation needed to bring down this hurtful and dangerous behavior. Please help us send a message to the Ridgefield High School administration voicing our concern and demanding a strong reaction from the school."
After Walker's initial plea for support, she didn't wait long -- students and alumni from RHS, and soon from other nearby and not-so-nearby schools, began adding their names to be signed to a letter to school officials and administration.
Students from nearby schools included those from Ridgefield High School, Joel Barlow High School and Weston High School, with the anticipation, Needleman posted, to incorporate schools in Wilton, New Canaan and Darien.
Needleman posted earlier on:
"In January 2012, a revolution was started. A revolution of caring, of speaking out and standing up against bullying in all its forms, but especially in those forms which take place over the internet and the social networking websites which make it so easy for us to lose sight of who we are and what we believe in. Help us to continue the spread of strength. Add your friends to the group and do everything you can to stop the hate."
Patrick Ford-Matz, an alumnus of RHS and a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania wrote in an email to the Ridgefield Patch editor:
"The cyberbullying going on and the immediate backlash of the student body is pretty powerful stuff, and I think it would do the whole town a lot of good to be appraised of both the blatant homophobia that exists on campus, and how strongly students are speaking out against it."
Walker also included in her original post a call to arms for other students and alumni interested in stepping up to cyber-bullying:
"As a group of both current Ridgefield High School students and alumni, we collectively share an interest in our school and our community. Though we may be scattered across the country, even across the world, we have a responsibility as RHS students to say something when we see something that is wrong. It is what we have been taught and it is what we are expected to do."
District Superintendent Deborah Low released a statement:
"I am sorry to report this incident. Yesterday afternoon (January 30), twitter messages were sent out by Ridgefield High School students titled, “RHSfagoftheday.” Although I haven’t been able to see them, apparently they follow a pattern of others sent out earlier such as “RHSGirlProbs,” “RHSbabewatch,” “RHSstudoftheday,” “RHSrumors,” and “RHSDailyQueer.”
The on-line behavior is disturbing and unacceptable. As educators, it is frightening to hear about cyber-bullying because we know what tragic impacts it can have. It is distressing to witness the level of ridicule and intolerance and it is unfathomable that some people use hateful and demeaning language. The behavior and values expressed represent the worst in people.
From what I know, yesterday’s tweets about “RHSfagoftheday” were taken down last night. This was apparently in response to the overwhelming outrage and criticism expressed by Ridgefield High School students and graduates. The number of people who immediately banded together to express their outrage is heartening and impressive.
Our faculty and staff will conduct a thorough investigation and respond as strongly as possible; there is no tolerance for such abhorrent behavior. We also will communicate our support and concern for the victims. As some parents have noted, this is a “teachable” moment and we will address the bullying and harassment issues through our advisory program, classes, and student life activities. We will partner with the PTSA as well.
Our present and former students spoke out against injustice and stood up for what is right. The voices of tolerance and respect were louder than the voices of intolerance and cruelty. I applaud and thank these students."
High School Principal Jeffrey Jaslow also had some words for the students who helped get the ball rolling:
"I assure you that the RHS administration is greatly dismayed that any members of our community would participate in such behavior, and that we will be aggressive in our investigation and in addressing the matter. We are currently attempting to obtain more information about what has transpired.
I also want to say how gratifying it is to see your response and to hear of the outrage and outcry among the student body. It is imperative that a single message be conveyed: that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by any constituency within our community."
Meanwhile, the students who started it all are looking to spread the message even further.
RHS senior Sophie Needleman, who heard about the original messages, told the story of her outrage at seeing the homophobia online and how she used a combination of Facebook and alumni acquaintances to get her message across.
"We knew Facebook was, at the moment, the way to let a large group of people know about this," Needleman said Tuesday. "And it just sort of exploded from there."
Needleman contacted recent alumna Holly Walker for help organizing the alumni community, many of whom were "horrified," and Walker and fellow RHS graduate Kiera Bloch helped form the petition.
Soon, members of other communities nearby began asking to get involved -- the provisional name for the group formed just yesterday afternoon is "SAID," or Students Against Internet Discrimination.
Emily Kilbourn, Student Life Coordinator at the high school, hoped to celebrate the positive outreach the students coordinated in getting the information in public.
"This shows that there's a huge majority of students who, like Sophie and others, are willing to speak up against this kind of wrongdoing," Kilbourn said. "I'm so impressed they had the courage to organize this and articulate a beautiful letter to the school administration."
It's not the end for Needleman and her Facebook group, though, even if it was the furthest thing from her mind just yesterday morning.
"We're hoping to get every school in the FCIAC involved," Needleman said. "We've gotten the message out there, and now we just need to keep up the momentum."
gained widespread attention last year when Alye Pollack, a then-eighth-grader at , posted a expressing the taunting she was subjected to on a daily basis.
In her video, Pollack said she is in therapy more than class and wonders whether high school will be worse.
Associate Regional Editor Chandra Johnson-Greene contributed to this report.