The boy in blue throws the first punch. It misses, and the two back away from each other, hesitant and cautious, carefully watching each other’s movements. Around them, a large crowd has gathered, egging them on with cries of support and harassment. Many of the onlookers, most of them students, have their phones out, recording in hopes of capturing something worth sharing.
The two boys lunge simultaneously, knocking shoulders and landing back on their feet. One begins furiously beating the stomach and chest of the other. In response, the second charges, enduring the blows and grabbing the first fighter by the torso. “It’s over,” a spectator shouts as they tumble to the ground, the boy in blue landing on top.
By almost all measurements, this school fight is inconsequential. It is short, reserved, and without any serious injury. Yet on Instagram, where its footage is paired with a second fight, commenters respond with encouragement and intrigue. “Johnny fuckin[g] rocked him,” one user says. “Was this at Benson [H]igh [S]chool?” another asks.
Although the account that posted this, ppsfuckery, no longer exists, the culture it once headlined persists. Mostly on Instagram and Snapchat, many anonymous users have uploaded videos of fights, vandalism, and alcohol and drug use among PPS students to widespread attention and acclaim, with new accounts continually replacing those that are reported and removed. These users have helped create a larger community of controversial school-related media, which also includes hate campaigns that harass students and staff, and retailers selling goods like liquor and marijuana to minors.
Many of these creators, per their own admission, are PPS high school students, but through their anonymity as well as the use of submissions rather than original content, they separate themselves from the controversy they generate. For that reason, they often feel safe from intervention. “I just keep my page private and watch who I’m accepting as followers,” one owner writes. “I don’t think Franklin Administration cares about my page.” However, according to Vice Principal Dennis Joule, this sense of security is unfounded.
“We address [social media pages] a lot,” Joule says. The process of disabling these accounts begins when administration learns of their existence, which “usually comes from parents and students.” Then they work with the district, which has some jurisdiction, and the social media platforms, which these type of pages often directly violate the codes of conduct of.
After shutting down an account, like they did with ppsfuckery, the district and administration also seek out the page’s creators. With the aid of the Portland Police Department, they “find out how to locate who started [the accounts and] where they came from,” even if the owner’s identity is not a readily available part of the profile, Joule explains. “We definitely do talk to those families and those kids who start these pages eventually.”
If these creators are caught, they face minor punishment. According to the Student Handbook, punitive meetings with administrators and restriction of cell phone access are the primary consequences to managing these pages. If the pages constitute the school board’s definition of harassment or bullying, they may also face additional charges, depending on the severity.
This moderation of social media is a divisive issue of ideology, especially between staff and students. The largest point of contention is whether these types of pages negatively impact the school environment. Joule says his primary motivation in enforcing these rules is to create a safe environment and “some accountability over what students are allowed to do.” Yet many of the managers think their pages are actually helping the community, or at least providing innocuous entertainment. “If you don’t like it [then] unfollow[.] It’s that simple,” one writes.
If Joule and these owners agree on one thing, it is that administration’s closure of these accounts does little if the larger emotions around them do not also change. As one account owner puts it, “Whether it be hundreds of other students or just a few, we’ll gladly risk getting in trouble for a few laughs. In the long run, taking my page down [won’t] stop kids from fighting.” Similarly, Joule believes that “if everyone is having fun and laughing at [these pages] and sending their replies, recognizing [them] as being cool, that’s on the students. A lot of the responsibility is on the students.”
Already, the PPS community has shown their effectiveness in curbing what they deem as unnecessary harassment. For example, one page, which seeks to “end Thottery 2018” by exposing PPS students, has continually faced removal of posts at the hands of disapproving peers. “Stop reporting the posts!” the owner wrote, after their latest upload, which included an identifiable photo of a young woman with a caption detailing “multiple reported instances of thot behavior,” was taken down within hours of its publishing. In response to the creator’s outrage, one dissenter wrote “if you [don’t] like being reported then don’t post.”
Whether this will extend to other areas of controversy like alcohol and drugs has yet to be seen. With social media being a relatively recent creation and the smartphone being even more so, the future of these pages and the proper way to manage harassment is unclear to all parties involved. Although administration interference remains a looming presence, so does a contentious—and potentially dangerous—student culture.