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High-tech hijinks spawn fear

Recent arrests have exposed a new gray area for teenagers. They live in an age when it is delectably easy to use an anonymous screen name to freak out their friends -- and in a society that has learned the hard way to take threats of violence seriously.
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The pranks teenagers play on each other are almost rites of passage -- making crank phone calls, scrawling scary messages on lockers and toilet-papering a friend's yard are usually seen as harmless adolescent mischief and come with few repercussions.

But in the past two weeks, two students in Arlington have been arrested -- and were still being detained this weekend -- after their apparent pranks were taken more seriously. Both involved instant messages, or IMs, the on-screen form of real-time computer communication that takes up hours of American teenagers' lives each day and that allows them something a crank call doesn't always: anonymity.

On May 18, a 15-year-old Yorktown High School boy sent an anonymous IM to a friend, threatening to harm her and others at school. She told her parents that night, and police evacuated Yorktown the next day, swarming the school before the boy turned himself in. He is being held without bond at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Home in Alexandria on a felony charge of making a written threat to kill.

A few days later, on May 24, Washington-Lee High School was locked down for the afternoon after three students reported receiving similar threats via IM. On Thursday, police arrested a 13-year-old Swanson Middle School student, a brother of one of the recipients, and charged him with the same felony count and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor. He is being held without bond until a second arraignment scheduled for Tuesday.

The arrests have exposed a new gray area for teenagers. They live in an age when it is delectably easy to use an anonymous screen name to freak out their friends -- and in a society that has learned the hard way to take threats of violence seriously.

Neither boy's intent has been disclosed. Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Theophani K. Stamos declined to comment on why they were still being held. Arlington County police spokesman Matt Martin said he had not heard of any evidence that either meant to hurt anyone.

The Yorktown boy's attorney, Judith L. Wheat, said she has heard none either, and Friday she issued a statement from his parents, who said, "Our family feels terrible that an act of poor judgment intended as a practical joke has caused such a disturbance to his classmates, the school and our community."

The Washington Post generally does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.

'Everyone does things like that'
Among Yorktown students, the arrest of the popular freshman has produced waves of shock, indignation and, naturally, long scrolls of IM exchanges. Some students have made T-shirts calling for his release, and an online petition, signed by more than 300 students and a few parents, calls on officials to reduce the charges.

"Everyone does things like that, it's part of teen years," one petitioner wrote.

"No one ever thinks a joke with one of their friends is going to go that out of control," wrote another.

"I don't think his life should be messed up after this mistake or he will actually DO it when he gets out," wrote a third.

Most agreed that the boy's stunt was unwise, but a few signers also made cutting criticisms of the girl who received the message and of her parents, who they said had called police too rashly.

On Wednesday night, Liz Nelson, 15, a Yorktown freshman, sat in her basement juggling IM conversations with eight or 10 friends, switching quickly between screens to groan with one about a math test, make flirtatious plans for camp with another and agonize with a third about a romantic debacle that ensued when she inadvertently sent an IM to the wrong friend.

"It's the easiest way to talk to everybody," she said, her fingers fluttering over the keyboard to type out messages in typically truncated IM-speak: "what r the topics? lik do u remember ne of em" and "lol." That stands for "laugh out loud," and she inserted it every time a friend's message made her smile.

Like many teenagers, Nelson has a "buddy list" of screen names she recognizes. If an unfamiliar name pops up, she has to approve it. "Usually it's a friend of one of the people you know," she said. "It's pretty rare that it's somebody bad."

The conversations crackled through the evening, and by 9:30 Nelson's mother, Priscilla Hoffman-Stowe, warned that it was time to shut down.

"It interferes grossly with homework time," Hoffman-Stowe said, adding that she increases or decreases her two teenage daughters' IM time depending on their grades and behavior. After the Yorktown evacuation, she had a talk with them about its perils. "I don't think they understand how public it is," she said.

Paul Attewell, a sociology professor at the City University of New York who studies youth and technology, said the dangers posed by IMing's potential anonymity are ironic, given the creators' original intent.

One of the fears was that predators would be able to horn in on these conversations and track down the kids. "So IMing was designed with screen names that are anonymous," he said, adding that the technology aimed at protecting kids also gives them great leeway.

"If you could click on an IM and there was a profile that included a name," Attewell said, "it would limit the prankster capacity."

Some Yorktown students said they plan to attend their classmate's next court hearing, wearing the protest T-shirts and bringing along the petition.

"We support and care about him a lot," said Laura Shinners, 14. She said the boy had been a good friend of the girl he IMed and that the message had contained a quote from a preview of a scary movie.

Laura said that after the incident, her parents had a conversation with her.

"They, like, talked to me and said, 'If you ever get a strange message, tell us,' " she said. But in light of what happened at Yorktown, she added, "I think I would try to figure it out first on my own."

That is what some adults fear.

Katherine S. Newman, a sociology professor at Princeton University and the author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," said the recipients and the two schools were right to take the threats seriously in the wake of deadly incidents such as those at Columbine High School in Colorado and Red Lake High School in Minnesota.

"You did get some ridiculous things [after Columbine], like a kindergartner being expelled for pointing a chicken finger at someone and saying, 'Bang, bang,' " she said.

But, she noted, "if ever they ignored a threat that was credible and something happened, the community would go up in flames."

Still, Newman said "zero tolerance" policies for verbal threats and punishments that students perceive as too harsh could lead some to hold back crucial information.

In every violent school incident she has studied, she said, there were students who had heard something was going to happen. But Newman said students often won't cross the line between adults and youths because they fear being seen as a traitor.

"They'll say to themselves, 'If I tell, Johnny's going to be thrown in jail for three weeks, and do I want to be the one to tell and be fingered as the one who told?' " she said. "And then we lose the most important and accurate information we have."

Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.