Police dismiss Internet link to Annapolis mall shooting, but officials monitor Web social sites

Web sites add fuel to fights

November 22, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

Did a popular social networking Web site help fuel the neighborhood rivalry that has led to numerous fights at Annapolis High School and eventually to a mall shootout last weekend?

Though Annapolis High School Principal Don Lilley has said that he suspected a conflict on MySpace as the cause of a fight at the beginning of the school year, Lilley and a school system spokesman yesterday denied a link between exchanges on the site and more recent violence.

Other community members are divided - some say the animosity among students from different neighborhoods began with a simple fistfight over the summer, yet talk of the MySpace connection persists.

Regardless of the role that MySpace might have played in sparking the feud, experts agree that to monitor and quell the kind of school violence that spilled over last weekend from Annapolis High to the Westfield Annapolis mall, more attention needs to be paid to what students are saying online.

"Not only schools, but police will have to get involved," said Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse. "They will have to take advantage of people posting illegal things. ... They can't ignore it. The Internet is not going away."

Searches for Annapolis High School students on MySpace this week revealed photos of a self-described former student (who identifies himself as a dropout) posing with what appears to be a gun, others who describe themselves as current or former students touting gang ties, and several who attend the school proclaiming their neighborhood affiliation. A few of those students make disparaging comments about other neighborhoods.

Though school officials have said the recent violence is not gang-related, an expert on online behavior said more gangs are turning to the Web.

"It used to be that gangs just sprayed to mark their territory, but now they can get a much larger audience if they're on the Internet," said Mike Ribble, an instructor at Kansas State University. "By them provoking others, they're trying to show superiority."

The highly popular MySpace site allows users to create public profiles, in which users can display photos and attract friends. Those friends can then post public comments on a user's profile.

Police said this week that Saturday's mall shootout - in which two teens and a U.S. Secret Service agent were wounded - was connected to fights that have been occurring at the high school. In September, two days of brawls led to the arrest of 18 students; more fights on Friday led to the arrest of seven more.

According to police, the mall violence began when one group of young people, who claim to have ties with the Robinwood public housing complex, began assaulting a resident of the Annapolis Gardens neighborhood. The attack apparently was in retaliation for a fight at the high school in September.

An off-duty Secret Service agent who attempted to intervene on Saturday night was shot in the leg by Javaughn Norman Adams, 18, a graduate of Annapolis High School, according to county police. The agent returned fire, striking Adams twice in the upper body, police said. A current student of the school also was shot in the leg.

Police said that Adams faces numerous felony charges. He remained in fair condition yesterday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The agent, whose name has not been released, was discharged from the hospital Monday.

Bob Mosier, spokesman for Anne Arundel County schools, said yesterday that school system officials do not believe that Internet exchanges played a direct role in the school fights.

"What's important to remember is that there are things that happened in the community," he said, adding that social networking sites such as MySpace are blocked on school computers.

School resource officers, who are Police Department employees but who work at the high schools, monitor MySpace and similar sites to keep abreast of what students are doing and talking about, said Lt. David Waltemeyer, an Anne Arundel County police spokesman. When asked about the online taunting, Waltemeyer said: "It's not necessarily a crime."

As for posing with guns and boasting of gang affiliations, he said: "Just because someone's on there, we're not going to go out there and arrest them."

Instead, school resource officers can make administrators aware of any potentially troublesome students.

Waltemeyer said that the police - who are continuing to investigate the Saturday shooting - are not looking into a possible Internet connection.

Many teens who do boast about their exploits, or post tales or pictures of illegal behavior, often count on no one looking, said Ribble of Kansas State.

"There's a certain assumption that there's anonymity that comes with being online. There's an assumption that nobody else will see it but myself and my friends," Ribble said. "But then there is the flip side. ... It gives them a stage to stand upon. It can be a fairly large stage, and some are very cognizant of that."

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