Keeping Students Cybersafe
Taylor Behl was a pretty, sympathetic, and emotionally trusting 17-year-old freshman who came to the city of Richmond in late summer to begin studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. How can these things be certain? The photos she posted of herself and the writings in her online weblogs at LiveJournal.com and Myspace tell the story.
Behl was tight with a group of friends in her hometown of Vienna, Va.--they teased each other online about their jobs at a local Starbucks. She posted her angst and elation on the internet, showing just how delicate the line between adolescence and adulthood can be. Her aliases included "jailbait" (used by "bad boys") and "Baby Girl," something her mom called her. She complained about her mom's house rules and restrictions; Behl couldn't wait to leave home. She listed her top fears: "boys," "men," and "my dad." She also revealed some of her sexual explorations. She was excited about learning to play the guitar and was thrilled when she finally got her own car. "Yeeeessssss," she wrote.
By all accounts she was fitting into college life at VCU. One friend wrote in an online blog that Behl was "loving being on her own."
So why did this girl end up dead only weeks after starting her college career? Why did she feel compelled to share so much personal detail about herself in online blogs? VCU police, the Richmond Police Department, and the FBI are trying to answer these questions as they comb through 12 months' worth of blog postings by not only Behl, but also other characters such as "Cino" and "Skulz."
The Behl case has cast a cloud over VCU. The national media criticized its police department for not involving the Richmond Police in the case sooner. Behl disappeared from the VCU campus on September 5, 2005, Labor Day, after spending most of the weekend back home with family. One month later she was found dead in a shallow grave 70 miles outside of the city.
A suspect in the case, a 38-year-old photographer and former convicted felon named Ben Fawley (aka "Skulz"), was reportedly once a VCU employee, working between 2001 and 2003 at clerical jobs in campus recreational facilities. He worked on campus during the time when he was a registered student, a VCU spokesperson told the press. VCU administrators did not do background checks on Fawley and did not know he had previously been arrested for car theft and other burglaries in Pennsylvania. "Cino" has turned out to be a mutual friend of Fawley's and Behl's. A gag order prevents the police department from revealing more.
What is clear, though, is the role the internet has played in the case. Behl's everyday jottings live on in cyberspace, but they now have a new kind of dramatic importance. Friends have composed tribute entries with prose and music.
A number of other bloggers, including online journalists and true crime writers, believe that Behl knew Fawley months before she came to Richmond and that some of the pensive poses of herself that she posted online may have, ironically, been taken by Fawley.
Photos that Fawley saved on one of his many computers led police to Behl's shallow grave, a spot near a lake in Mathews County. Authorities also found digital pictures of Behl on Fawley's computers.
The details of Behl's death have compelled VCU to address a new area of campus security--online safety. Behl was like millions of students her age who share intimate personal details in what are now known as online communities. Like many, she said more than she needed to, opening the door for cyberstalkers to exploit her vulnerabilities.
Educating students about online dangers is now a priority at VCU. "This is the most important thing we've learned," President Eugene Trani said in a statement made after the Behl investigation began.
Beginning this month, with spring semester 2006, VCU is incorporating online safety education into VCU 101, a student orientation class. Campus police and the Student Affairs department have already prepared online educational safety materials for freshmen and transfer students coming in mid-year, says Pam Lepley, director of University News Services. Instruction will cover basic warnings about not giving out Social Security numbers and cell phone numbers online, as well as include information about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Lepley and administrators now are equating student participation in online communities with drinking and sex. All can lead to risky behaviors.
"We have to tell students how to use websites safely," says Lepley. "We can't assume that because [people are] of age to be in college they are sophisticated about the ways of the world." Students will get two important reminders: they have choices about filling in online profiles that ask for personal information, and this information can live in cyberspace forever. Even giving too much detail about comings and goings with friends can lead to trouble.
As for Taylor Behl, Lepley realizes the case exposes a generation gap. Students read Behl's "jailbait" moniker or the postings on groups like "girls like it hard" on other online communities and say the participants are just joking. The average student isn't taking these online personas seriously. But older cyberstakers might be, responds Lepley, which is why students have to post with a broader audience in mind.
VCU joins a growing number of other IHEs in addressing this emerging area of campus safety. Brandeis University (Mass.) has created a presentation that's now being shared by other colleges and universities. Among the advice for students: Post only things you would want your grandmother to see and limit sharing to what can already be found in the public domain.
Administrators at California State University, Chico recently participated in an audio conference about the need to teach students about online safety when blogging. College students check blogs the way other business people check e-mail. At least 65 percent of all students are estimated to have profiles on MySpace, Facebook, or any number of other blog sites. Unfortunately, many students believe there is a degree of anonymity to posting.
"We are reminding students that what they are posting could show up with a future employer," says Lorraine Smith, associate director of Academic Advising at Cal State, Chico. To add another layer of safety, administrators there have created a closed community for its freshmen and their parents. Its "Destinations" community is restricted, operating off UPeers, a technology supplied by GoalQuest, an online enrollment and retention company. Students can still participate in Facebook and other blog sites; the Destinations site just gives them another option.
As for the case of Taylor Behl, Fawley remained a suspect at press time, but had not been accused of murder. One newspaper report said he had admitted to having consensual sex with Behl in the early morning hours of September 6 and that a rough sex act had accidentally killed her. Other details are unfolding and the case is expected to go before a grand jury in early 2006.