Learning from the Lexington Catholic texting controversy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The investigation at Lexington Catholic High School into text messages from one student, using the word "lynch", that were sent to an African-American student is raising questions about social media and privacy, legal consequences, and the culture of younger people in this world of instant messaging.

For our report, we talked to an expert on social media, and some young students who depend on texting. They explained how quickly the wrong words can backfire, and ruin reputations and relationships.

The numbers are staggering - from the number of tweets sent every day (in the hundreds of millions per day) - to text messages.

Instant messaging has replaced face-to-face conversations and letters, but as we are learning, the words in those text messages are not so private, and can be very damaging.

A hard lesson kids are learning at an early age.

Kakie Urch, an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky says digital devices are making these things last longer. "We used to do these things in high school cafeterias, and now cafeteria banter and mistakes are made on digital devices, and they have a longer life."

Urch, who teaches in the School of Journalism and Media, specializes in social media. "A text message is a written communication, and under a written communication, you can easily libel somebody," she says, "that is to say something that is not true. Your words have legal merit."

Urch believes many younger people don't understand there can be legal consequences to the words they use.

"They simply do not know this is a legal written communication, and it can be subpoenaed. Not only that, people can make a screen shot of it, and send it to the press - which is what happened in the Lex Cath situation and has brought on all these things to light."

In February, two Lexington Catholic High School football players took part in a "Lift-A-Thon." Each boy was responsible for raising at least $300.

WKYT obtained the group text messages from Team 4 which was made up of 16 boys.

One 17-year old boy is accused of sending threatening text messages, encouraging the others to raise the money.

The messages contained things like the following: "We're gonna raise more so we get nice s_ _ _ _ , so coach doesn't flip the _ _ _ _ out."

Many of the words in the numerous text messages between the football players are vulgar. But two messages that have now become public have shaken the school to its core.

Later in the group text, police say, the older player texted to a 14-year old, African-American player, "do you know what lynch means".

And later in another text, "lynch means I'm gonna hang you bc you're black, and I just might."

The younger player replies, "oh wonderful."

Urch says, "People aren't taught about that there are some very good legal reasons not to be, for better or worse, bigoted, mean."

Two of her students in social media classes told me the younger generation will send a text with harsh words, even threatening, in the heat of the moment.

One UK Student, Chase Scheuer, says it's part of the generation they're growing up in. "We're such a generation of , say what's on your mind real quick because you know you want to say it, get it out there before anybody else."

"And the next thing you know, you're saying something stupid, and you want to put your foot in your mouth. But it's too late, and especially with social media, when you put some thing out there, that you can't take back," says Scheuer.

Elizabeth Gabbert, another UK Student, says part of the problem is their 'just do it' attitude. "People our age, some of them just don't care, and some of them, do it, just to do it. And because they feel like it, they think it's fun, but then they are caught, and like, wow, I really shouldn't have done that. I'm gonna get in trouble for that."

Both the University of Kentucky, and Lexington Catholic High School have social media policies.

Catholic's states: "Any student who is guilty of posting negative or offensive comments regarding LCHS,or any of their students will be held accountable and subject to dismissal."

Each student and their parent are required to read and agree to the policy.

"Things can be brought back to haunt you," Gabbert says. "No, I don't think people really think about, you know, this could really effect my long term success, or my short term success. Not at all."

After the texting between two football players became public, the President of Lexington Catholic High released a statement that that said: "We are handling a modern day social media issue that did not happen at our school. We have no control over what students do on the internet. Teenagers have become desensitized to hateful words and the staying power of social media and texting."

"It's a collision of privacy, hate speech, digital policy, corporate or institutional policy, and you know, youthful inexperience." says Urch.

At the end of the group text from the Lexington Catholic High School football players, the older student, says, " Alright sorry about that, I really am. Never meant any of this."

The younger player texts back, "me neither."

But by then, the damage had been done.

The older Lexington Catholic High student was suspended from school. The younger student left Lexington Catholic.

In addition to a police and an internal school investigation, the Catholic Diocese is looking into what happened. The NAACP is also demanding a change in school leadership.

Lexington Catholic High is bringing in experts on diversity to help the faculty and students learn from what happened.

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