BROOKSVILLE — No one ever touched Sarah Ball, but the online assault felt like a punch in the gut.
Shortly after the 16-year-old Hernando High School sophomore endured a painful breakup with her boyfriend, a girl Ball considered to be a friend posted a shocking message on her Facebook status: "I hate Sarah Ball and I don't care who knows."
Shortly after, photos of Sarah and that same friend appeared on a Facebook page called Hernando Haters. "Who's prettier?" the caption read. Someone left a comment calling Ball an "ugly whore."
"You see other people reading these things and they're so hurtful, and you have no idea what to say," Sarah said. "I was in so much pain."
She didn't tell anyone at first. She did do research, though, and found story after story about teens resorting to suicide after being harassed or bullied online.
Now Sarah is leading a local movement to stem a growing phenomenon in the virtual world that can have devastatingly real effects.
Hernando Unbreakable aims to raise awareness about cyberbullying and offer teens a resource that Ball felt like she didn't have.
"Someone has got to do something, or more teenagers are going to kill themselves," Ball said recently, a bright green rubber bracelet with the words Hernando Unbreakable Movement on her wrist.
Sarah created a Facebook page that as of last week had more than 250 "friends." The page features the photos and stories of the teens Sarah found who committed suicide.
She started a Hernando Unbreakable club at her school with hopes the group will expand to the county's other four high schools. The club held its second meeting last week to create bylaws and elect officers.
"We had 16 people, which was double our first meeting," she said.
She sent a packet of information to superintendent Bryan Blavatt that included printouts from various Facebook pages like Hernando Haters. The pages invite visitors to comment on photos of fellow students — photos often taken from their Facebook pages without their permission. Like 21st century versions of the slam books once passed around from student to student, the sites can be petri dishes for bullying behavior.
A veteran school executive well versed in technology, Blavatt said he was surprised by the Facebook pages Sarah brought him.
"It's much more pervasive than I thought it was," he said. "It's deplorable."
Paige Martin, a 15-year-old Hernando High sophomore, knew Sarah as a casual acquaintance and found out about Unbreakable when Sarah added her as a friend on Facebook. Like Sarah, Paige had been targeted on the site.
"Nobody's really made it an issue," said Paige, who now serves as club secretary. "It happens so frequently, it's like it's normal. Kids don't see it as a problem. But how can you say that when 15 kids committed suicide this year?"
Hernando Haters was eventually taken down. A similar page, Hernando Face Mash is still active. Created in January, the page has more than 456 friends and asks visitors to submit photos of two people and a topic for comparison. Its description boasts: "No bias, no topic too sensetive (sic), and no light punches." The creator is anonymous, listed only as a male in Hernando High's class of 2013.
Recent posts asked visitors to vote on the "biggest (ste)roid abuser," the "most drama-filled relationship" and "the most non-athletic black athlete."
Another category: "most likely to preach to you then cuss you out." One of the two candidates, accompanied by a photo, is Sarah.
"That's how mean and cruel they are," said Hernando sheriff's Deputy Wendy McGinnis, the student resource officer at Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill. "She's out there trying to do a wonderful thing, and they're trashing her, trying to tear her down."
"But that's why I want to partner with her," McGinnis said. "I admire her spirit."
McGinnis, who can still remember the name of the girl who bullied her in school, has presented the Florida attorney general's cybersafety program to more than 1,000 students since 2008. She sees firsthand the effects of cyberbullying and harassment.
Fox Chapel students had their own anonymous Facebook page called Fox Chapel's Finest. Comments on the sites can trash students' self-esteem and lead to physical conflicts at school, McGinnis said.
"Kids find it so much easier to confront one another electronically, but the problem is, eventually, a face-to-face confrontation will likely ensue," she said.
McGinnis got Fox Chapel's Finest taken down, a result she calls one of her biggest successes.
State budget cuts threaten the state's cybersafety program, and that makes grass roots efforts like Sarah's vital, she said.
Hernando High principal Ken Pritz said he notifies Facebook about sites, but new ones pop up quickly. Sowing the seeds of awareness, as Sarah is trying to do, could help.
"What's neat about this is it's a student movement," Pritz said. "If the students are aware and they care, hopefully you'll see less of that."
Sarah and McGinnis want Facebook to place a definition of cyberbullying prominently on its site. A tougher goal is to make it more difficult to pull photos from other people's pages.
Sarah plans to lobby the district to create a bullying hotline, staffed by counselors, that students can call for support and guidance.
That's also the goal for Hernando Unbreakable.
"This club is supposed to be there to stand up for victims," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.