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John Brown University administration confronts increase in online harassment

When a friend told senior Rachel Ball that her face was being used on a meme page, she found it ironic. The photo of her wearing a facemask was placed over the face of the TV character Andy from “The Office,” as he punched a wall in rage with the caption, “Y’all better keep this same energy during flu season because wearing a mask then will also save lives. Let’s get that herd immunity up boys and girls.”

“I did find it a little funny that someone got so triggered by me light-heartedly putting a mask in my profile picture that they spent hours creating and posting a video that no one noticed for a week,” Ball said in reference to the meme posted by @jbu_classified_memes on Instagram.

As meme pages—where students create images and videos based on the culture of John Brown University—have risen in popularity, so have concerns increased over the content that they share. Some accounts have directly targeted students, using their images or alluding to their appearances. Many posts have sparked debates in their comments sections, with some posts receiving over 200 responses.

In response to posts by these Instagram accounts, the JBU administration has examined its current policies addressing harassment. The student handbook states that “harassment in any form—verbal, physical, or visual—is strictly against university policy and will result in immediate disciplinary action.”

Emily Moore, interim Dean of Student Care, stated that the harassment policy, “as it is right now, is very strong,” and that it “might not change because that policy was carefully drafted in conjunction with university attorneys.”

However, the administration has added an additional statement to the student handbook addressing anonymous social media accounts. The updated policy states, “When inappropriate behavior is committed anonymously in an online format, these steps may be taken on the basis of user name or IP address. Consequently, when a student’s identity is confirmed, they will enter the discipline process on the step they are on as outlined below.”

Moore, as the Director of the Student Counseling Center, sought to clarify that she is not in charge of discipline. Jen Edwards, Director of Conduct, declined to comment due to probable involvement.

Emily Callon, interim assistant director of Residence Life and area coordinator for upper-division housing, explained the desire for students to take responsibility for their actions and consequences. “In our minds, whether you are owning your identity or not, the harassment is still occurring, and so we’re going to still attach some ownership to that,” Callon said. “Whether that’s a username handle or if that’s a specific student name, the ownership is still there.”

This isn’t the first time that the JBU campus has witnessed anonymous online harassment. In 2014, students on Yik-Yak, an anonymous messaging app based on location, used racial slurs against Hispanic students and told students in the Walton International Scholars Program to go back to their home countries, according to an article from The Threefold Advocate.

Carter Henson, digital content manager for University Marketing & Communications, was a student at the time. “There was just a lot of general toxicity amongst students,” Henson said. “The layer of anonymity made people feel like they could say whatever they wanted.” In response, the university administration blocked the platform on the WIFI network.

In March 2020, JBU meme accounts on Instagram launched debates across campus after Jen Edwards spoke in chapel about loving your neighbor. One post made by @underheard_at_jbu stated, “When you show up to chapel for a biblical message, but instead you get ‘The church isn’t for Cis-gendered heteronormative white males.’

Students in over 300 comments debated if LGBTQ individuals could be Christians, the meaning of different passages of Scripture and what is or is not allowed under the JBU Community Covenant. @underheard_at_jbu posted three additional memes tagging Jen Edwards.

Campus tensions quickly abated as students, faculty and staff turned to focus on the coronavirus pandemic when the university campus closed on March 16. As the university prioritized its response to COVID-19, its examination of potential policy changes was deferred, Moore said.

As students returned for the Fall 2020 semester, tensions again increased in response to “Should Christians Vote for Trump?” This event on Sept. 8—hosted by the Center for Faith and Flourishing—featured speakers Eric Metaxas, conservative author and radio host, and David French, attorney, political commentator and author.

Following the event, students protesting against Metaxas were featured on JBU meme pages.

Makenna Cofer, sophomore digital cinema major, and Luke Travis, senior English major, both have dyed-blue hair and were targeted by multiple accounts. In one post by @loljbu, an image of a can of blue spray paint is shown with the caption, “its my Mental illness and I get to choose the Coping mechanism.”

In the comments of one of their posts, @underheard_at_jbu said in reference to Travis, “homophobia? Didn’t even know he was gay; it’s just a common joke that colored hair = daddy issues.”

Travis, reflecting on this comment, said, “That comment was hurtful, but it’s not devastating. But if that was made to a queer person who was a freshman and was scared to be here in the first place … that could have really bad consequences.”

Reading through the comments, Cofer saw students question why she was attending JBU. “I’m a Christian and I wanted to attend this university … That was part of the debate in my mind … I won’t be accepted here,” Cofer said. “I came in with the hopes to evoke change and start this conversation because the LGBT community shouldn’t have to be afraid of attending Christian universities. They shouldn’t have to be afraid of Christianity.”

Although she reported the posts to the university administration as sexual harassment, she is still concerned as a student who identifies as bisexual. “I am not protected under community covenant guidelines, so they have to work their way around that and label it as sexual harassment,” she said, “which is weird because when circumstances like this happen … they are willing to stand up for us and support us when the overall message of the school is that we are not supported here.”

The Community Covenant states that “Biblical marriage is a covenant relationship between one man and one woman, and therefore romantic relationships are reserved for a man and woman.” It also states “that harassment of any kind (verbal, sexual, racial, ethnic, etc.) will not be tolerated.”

When Ball reported the posts to JBU, she said, “Regardless of what JBU’s doctrine is on these matters biblically or in the handbook, this is not okay … This could be hurting people’s mental health, and it should not be tolerated at JBU.”

@loljbu, @jbu_liberal, @jbumemes and @underheard_at_jbu declined to be interviewed because they were not granted anonymity. The Threefold Advocate’s policy requires that all sources be “relevant to the story, named and properly identified,” according to the staff handbook published in 2012. Sources are only given anonymity in life-threatening situations, which is determined on a case by case basis in consultation with the newspaper advisor.

Requesting to be interviewed through direct message with a name they would provide, @jbu_classfied_memes declined to be interviewed in-person or via Zoom. Due to the inability to verify the owner of the account, The Threefold faced potentially being given a falsified or innocent name. In consultation with the newspaper advisor, The Threefold did not grant @jbu_classified_memes a virtual interview.

Kelly Leamon, sophomore English major and account owner of @covenant.approved, commented on the anonymity of the accounts. “It creates—which is kind of ironic in this season—a mask,” Leamon said. “It’s like a superhero thing. You can use the mask to help people or you can use it to hurt people.”

Julie Gumm, director of University Marketing & Communications, shared that as frustrating as the situation is, Student Development cannot fix it by themselves. “We as a community can fix it because we basically say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate, engage or follow you,’” Gumm said. “This is an issue that can’t be solved by any one person or department. It has to be community driven.”

As students report these posts to Student Development, Henson and the University Marketing & Communications office are keeping track of each instance with screenshots. Moore said that these images are placed in a folder with the account username as the school works to find the owner’s identity. If the student’s identity is discovered after graduation, the posts will be attached to any recommendation letter sent on behalf of the student from the school.

In cases of online sexual harassment, reports can be made to the Title IX office. Amy Fisher, Title IX coordinator, said, “We would handle these types of cases in the same way we handle others.  We will meet with those wishing to bring an issue to our attention, then, working together with them, we will determine the best way to move forward, whether that be a formal investigation or an informal process.”

If students are being harassed online, they can send an email to Emily Moore, dean of student care, at emoore@jbu.edu and Amy Fisher, Title IX coordinator, at TitleIXCoordinator@jbu.edu. More information on Title IX reporting can be found at www.jbu.edu/title-ix/.