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Cyberbullying turns a heartbreak into a horror

Published Apr. 25, 2013

The story begins horribly enough, with the accusation of a teenage rape.

From there, the implications are enormous:

Lives interrupted and families torn apart. Innocence shattered and scars unseen.

And, yet, as we have reluctantly learned, there is a twisted temptation in an Internet-is-everywhere society to take a heartbreaking saga and make it exponentially worse.

By now, you may have heard of the Tarpon Springs High School sophomore charged with the sexual battery of a physically incapacitated girl at an underage drinking party.

Just to be clear, this is not an indictment or a defense of the student accused.

Rather, this is a lament of the cruel treatment too many rape victims routinely face.

Within days of when the incident was alleged, friends of the accused took to social media to insult, bully and demean a 15-year-old girl. What was portrayed as a defense of the accused looked instead like a vicious attack of the accuser.

"I really don't think kids understand the impact of what they're doing," said Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, an assistant psychology professor at Saint Leo University, who has studied cyberbullying. "The Internet has been a part of their lives forever, and so they tend to treat it like it's no big deal. It starts with one person, and all of the sudden their friends join in. It's easy to do when hiding behind a computer.

"It's a scary time to be a kid. They've found all these ways to harm each other."

Trust me, this is not an overreaction or an isolated case.

A month ago, we saw the conviction of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who sexually assaulted a girl who had gotten drunk at a party. Students at the school were sharing photos of the victim passed out on the floor.

Two weeks ago, a 17-year-old girl in Nova Scotia committed suicide after her parents say she was relentlessly bullied online following a sexual assault by four boys.

Last week, three California boys were charged in the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl who had passed out at a party. The girl committed suicide days after the attack when she discovered a photo of the incident had been circulated online.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed in Michigan by a teenager who said her principal encouraged her not to pursue assault charges against a star basketball player. She withdrew from the school because of cyberbullying, and the player was later charged with assaulting another student.

The typical rationale in this type of cyberbullying is that the victim is lying about the assault or is somehow responsible for the attack. Studies show this is nonsense.

The number of false accusations is a tiny fraction compared to the number of cases that go unreported. And that reality makes this trend far more heartbreaking than most of us realize.

Every time a girl is bullied online after a sexual assault, how many potential victims learn it is better to stay silent for fear of being victimized a second time?

This has to be addressed. It has to be stopped.

Taking advantage of an intoxicated person is not sex. It is rape. There are no gray areas involved. And attacking an accuser online is not being loyal. It is sick. And standing silently by is not good enough.

The shaming of a rape victim is not a singular event.

When we allow it to happen, it shames us all.