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Wikipedia threats went unchecked

Hateful messages had been appearing on the Glen A. Wilson High page for over a year.

April 29, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Angry, offensive messages started popping up more than a year ago on the Glen A. Wilson High School page on Wikipedia, the popular user-edited online encyclopedia.

The writer, who said he was a student, hid behind an anonymous e-mail address to threaten by name Asian students at the San Gabriel Valley school, hurl racial slurs at the school's primarily Asian badminton team and allude to possible attacks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
High school threats: An article in Tuesday's California section said threats posted on Glen A. Wilson High School's Wikipedia page came from an anonymous e-mail address. The threats were posted by a user who had not registered with Wikipedia. He posted to the site using an Internet Protocol (IP) address, a number generated by the computer or device he was using.

"I would love to see her shot right between the eyes with blood gushing out from her mouth begging for mercy as she clings onto a single shred of life," read a message about an Asian student posted May 28, 2007. "Haha now there's a great fantasy."

School district officials and sheriff's detectives did not start investigating the messages until two weeks ago, after Wikipedia staff alerted them to a violent threat posted April 16, the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting and a few days before the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

"On Friday, April 18, 2008, there will be a shooting at this school," the threat said, promising to target "a good majority of the badminton team and almost every single fob" -- a reference to recent Asian immigrants "fresh off the boat."

"Take this text down," the message warned, "and it will guarantee their death."

On the 17th, after another threat was posted on the page, school officials canceled classes for the following day. That day investigators arrested a 15-year-old Wilson student. The student, whose name has not been released, pleaded not guilty April 22 to seven counts of making criminal threats and was being held at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall pending a psychological evaluation. His next hearing is scheduled for May 9.

As authorities investigate previous messages the student may have posted on Wikipedia and MySpace that could lead to other charges, they are considering how best to monitor the school's 1,700 computer-savvy students and their virtual social lives.

On Wednesday, school officials and investigators met with about 200 parents in the Wilson High School gym to discuss the threats. Parents scrawled questions on index cards, which administrators read aloud:

"Was the threat a prank?"

"Did the police know about the messages posted last year?"

"Were messages sent from a school computer? If so, why did school officials wait until after the second threat to close the school?"

Sheriff's investigators said that after Wikipedia staff notified them of the first threat at 10:30 p.m. April 16, they assigned 13 detectives to the case and notified the six students mentioned in the threat, along with their families. They also dispatched officers to patrol outside the students' homes.

At least one message was sent from a school computer, according to online records. But school officials had been unaware of earlier threats on the 3-year-old Wikipedia page because, like other districts, they mainly monitor school-related messages on Facebook and MySpace -- hot spots for students socializing online, said Michael Droe, the district's chief technology officer.

Students mostly use Wikipedia for research. The school's Wikipedia page is unofficial, created by someone who doesn't work for the district, according to the page's online history. Technically, it's beyond district control. The district can ask companies or individuals to take down pages, but they rarely do, since the messages could be pranks posted by people outside the school or even the country.

Officials decided not to close school the morning after they discovered the threat and instead sent additional police to search students' bags as they arrived.

Among those searched, police said, was the sophomore who would later be arrested in connection with the threats.

Despite the student's warning not to remove his April 16 threat, district officials felt it was dangerous enough to be removed, and contacted Wikipedia's San Francisco-based staff the next morning.

The site's nonprofit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, has a budget of $4.5 million but a tiny staff of 16 paid employees. Most Wikipedia administrators, the people who monitor the pages, are volunteers, and Wikipedia largely relies on users to alert them to "vandalism."

A few hours after Wikipedia staff removed the student's first threat, he had posted a second.

"You removed my last edit. I gave you a fair warning. Now the people listed in my previous edit will be victims in the Glen A. Wilson Shooting to occur this Friday," he wrote. "Be prepared to have 33 families mourn the loss of their children and place a lawsuit upon your shoulders."

Again, the district asked Wikipedia staff to remove the message, and they complied, even placing a block on the page that bars postings from unidentified e-mail addresses.

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