Videos of school fights do lingering harm, but videographers may have legal protection

Vanessa Chauvin, 14, was beaten by another student on Feb. 13 at Clearwater’s Calvin A. Hunsinger School.
Vanessa Chauvin, 14, was beaten by another student on Feb. 13 at Clearwater’s Calvin A. Hunsinger School.
Published Feb. 20, 2013

CLEARWATER — Vanessa Chauvin heard herself screaming on the evening news. The 14-year-old had just come home from the hospital, where she was treated for injuries from a beating Feb. 13 at Clearwater's Calvin A. Hunsinger School.

The television screen showed a female classmate grabbing Vanessa's ponytail and kneeing her in the abdomen and face. A boy had shot the video on his camera phone and uploaded it to Facebook.

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On Feb. 1, a student at Pasco County's J.W. Mitchell High School punched 16-year-old Chase Cristia's head 15 times in the back of the school bus while another student recorded video. Days later, Chase got a text from a friend with a screen shot of comments: People are still talking about the beating on Facebook.

Chase locked herself inside a bathroom stall and called her mother, sobbing: "Please pick me up."

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Twice in a two-week span, a Tampa Bay-area student recorded a violent attack on a classmate and uploaded the footage online. Both assaults happened on school property. Both landed on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, local news and websites that aggregate teen brawls.

There are parents, educators and lawmakers who argue that each time someone presses play, the victims in school fights are revictimized, and that something should be done to punish those who put the videos online. But some experts say the U.S. Constitution's free speech provisions may protect the student behind the videocamera.

Neither the Pinellas nor Pasco school districts has a school district policy explicitly forbidding students from shooting video of a student-on-student attack and posting it online, where it will live in perpetuity.

Pinellas students can be punished for using cell phones at school, unless the principal has granted special permission. Pasco students can be reprimanded for accessing Facebook on school property, which includes school buses. Both districts typically suspend or expel a student for striking a schoolmate.

But that's not enough for Lori Chauvin, mother of Vanessa, and Tracy Cristia, mother of Chase.

"I want justice," Chauvin said Tuesday. "I want the boy who did this to Vanessa to pay for it. He's the reason she hasn't escaped that day."

"It's not fair. It's not humane," Cristia said Monday. "Chase acts like she's okay, but I know she's hurting. I'm still hurting."

Dr. Stacey Scheckner, a Tampa psychologist who counsels teenagers, said viral video of a brutal beating may not lead to life-long psychological damage, but it can give a young victim post traumatic stress disorder.

"The thought that it's out there, that people are watching, can be very emotionally traumatizing, especially at this age," Scheckner said. "These victims should immediately, immediately seek help to work through it."

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Two Florida lawmakers are sponsoring a bill in the Legislature to expand the definition of cyberbullying to include uploading humiliating videos of students and to require school districts to investigate the incidents.

State Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, who mentors high school students, is a sponsor of House Bill 609. Under the proposed legislation, any computer-related action by a student that publicly humiliates a student, creates a hostile classroom environment or substantially disrupts the victim's education must be investigated by the school district.

"Cyberbullying is a growing issue here," Fullwood said Monday. "We want this bill to force principals to address a problem when it arises."

"It's one thing to record the fight — but when you upload it, it's almost like you're uploading it with malicious intent to hurt the kid, make fun of the kid," Fullwood said. "That video can be looked at again and again, picked up by different websites again and again. It's permanent public humiliation."

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, a high school teacher, is sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate. Education laws haven't caught up to the constantly evolving technology teenagers use daily, he said.

"You're talking middle, high school years, where you're going through any number of physical or mental changes," Bullard said. "The idea that there's a viral video of you floating around doesn't make that any easier. In the long term, it makes it difficult for a teenager to want to return to school, want to see the people who stood around and did nothing."

Angry parents may view a viral video of a teen-on-teen brawl as unacceptable and call for severe punishment. First Amendment scholars, however, may see the same video as free expression shot in a public space, which can include some portions of public schools.

"This is very, very complicated," said University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Lidsky, who co-wrote a paper on cyberbullying law last year in the Missouri Law Review. "Free speech can be upsetting. It can inflict psychological distress."

Lidsky wrote: "The legislative zeal to eradicate cyberbullying potentially produces disproportionate punishment of common childhood wrongdoing. Furthermore, statutes criminalizing cyberbullying are especially prone to overreach in ways that offend the First Amendment."

• • •

Lori Chauvin, who pulled Vanessa out of Hunsinger after the videotaped attack on her, has contacted a lawyer to see what, if anything, can be done about the graphic footage. She's looking for a new school where the 14-year-old can start over.

"My first priority is making sure Vanessa gets better," she said. "Find a safe place to learn and grow away from this mess."

After the school bus fight in Pasco County, Tracy Cristia complained to Facebook and YouTube in hopes of removing the videos of her daughter's beating.

"None of us are sleeping right. None of us are eating right," she said. "I, for one, have this video playing constantly in my head. I can't get the sound of my daughter screaming out of my head."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at or (727) 445-4224.