Hal Hannaford sits in a wing chair in his book-lined study in a former manse, with its worn Oriental carpet, antique oak pulpit and stained-glass window of St. George the dragon slayer, mounted on a white horse. In a crisp mint shirt, brown tie co-ordinated with his mustard wool blazer, he looks calm and poised, the way the headmaster of an elite Toronto boys school should.
But it has been a terrible week. Mr. Hannaford, 49, has expelled three boys and suspended four others from Royal St. George's College. He has held four student assemblies, chaired an emotional parent-information night and met with the director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress. He also has faced a daily onslaught of media fascinated with the convergence of upper-crust schools, anti-Semitism, the 60th anniversary of Hitler's defeat and an unmanageable beast called cyberspace.
"When all this settles, it's really about the MSN culture. Twenty years ago, things just got written on the bathroom wall. Now, it goes global," Mr. Hannaford says with a sigh, after stepping out of an emergency meeting with outside public-relations specialists.
In the Stone Age, kids could be kids. Mouth off, do something horrible or just extremely stupid, and maybe the principal called in your parents. Even if there were witnesses, you might be able to escape under plausible deniability: their word against yours.
In the Cyber Age, virtual reality is real and visceral. It has an indelible memory. And there are printouts. You eventually grow up, maybe run for office, or try to get hired as a kindergarten teacher. Your 15 minutes of shame can last a lifetime.
"There is no childhood in cyberspace," says Dr. Liss Jeffrey, director of the McLuhan Global Research Network at the University of Toronto. "Young people are getting themselves into trouble, trouble that will follow them around for good and forever."
This era may well be remembered as the one that ended the modern concept of privacy. Before, classmates might mock you in the school yard. Now, your most private moment can become mass entertainment.
Take the pudgy 15-year-old in Trois-Rivières, who found himself a global laughingstock. Two years ago, Ghyslain Raza made a video of himself lunging around his school gym using a golf-ball retriever as a light sabre.
His classmates digitized it and placed it on the file-sharing network KaZaa. Millions of chortling spectators downloaded it. Late-night talk shows ridiculed him as the Star Wars kid -- and played the video over and over. Forced to change schools, Ghyslain eventually ended up in a child psychiatric ward.
Private schools, the last bastion of sweep-it-under-the-rug discretion, also have no more privacy. On Friday, April 22, a Grade 10 student at Royal St. George's College went home and set up an invitation-only Microsoft chat board. Like a teen party that spirals out of control, the board took on a life of its own. Some kids invited in other kids. And soon, a few classmates posted photographs of Hitler and prisoners in concentration camps.
Someone else, using the on-line name "Rod," objected. In response, a Royal St. George's student flamed the critic, using homophobic, anti-Semitic language seemingly straight from a white-supremacy Aryan Nation website.
To quote the 15-year-old verbatim, including his 16 spelling and grammar mistakes:
You little fucking faggot who are you. Nobody knows you. Your prolly some fucking jew who dosen't deserve to exist and who should be thrown into an oven with the rest of them. Fucking Kyke get off the site, nobody wants you here. Fucking cheap piece of mother fucking shit. Next time you decide to send something put some thought into it, alright you little fucking jew. Don't go off blabbing about random bullshit. Okay you fucking hooknosed parasite. That's all I have to say for the moment.
Put some thought into it? That may well be the real story. The author of this delightful screed happens to be Jewish. He assumed he was flaming a classmate. He assumed he was having a conversation -- if that's the word for it -- in the privacy of an invitation-only chat room. He never thought he would end up in the national media.
In fact, "Rod" was the pseudonym of four girls -- who also happen to be Jewish. They printed out a copy, informed their parents and their school, Branksome Hall Girls School in Toronto's Rosedale district. Someone brought in the CJC.
" 'Kike' -- it's such an anachronistic term," says Douglass St. Christian, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in youth culture. "It suggests to me that kids are picking it from the Internet somewhere, from Aryan Nation websites. 'Hook-nosed parasite' -- that's right out of a 1930s Nazi pamphlet, not something that would erupt spontaneously in the mind of a 15-year-old.
"What's troubling is the Canadian Jewish Congress jumped on it, impugning motives to these kids."
In any case, Branksome's principal phoned Mr. Hannaford at noon on Wednesday, April 27. He got to her office by 3 p.m. By 4 p.m., the chat board was down. It's entire lifespan: six days.
On Thursday, Mr. Hannaford expelled the author of the screed. On Friday, he asked two other students, whose names aren't known, "to leave for the balance of the year, with nothing determined about next fall." Then he suspended four others for being bystanders. That night, he played host to the school's 40th anniversary fundraiser gala.
But if the past week has been stressful for the headmaster, what has it been like for the 15-year-old and his parents? We can only imagine, because the family has declined requests for interviews.
Mr. Hannaford, who has been in daily contact with them, has only praise. "They have acted as the epitome of responsible parents," he said. "They have taken ownership of this, and responsibility."
He says he believes that the teen was not being anti-Semitic. Nor was anyone dictating over his shoulder when he wrote the screed. Apparently, he was trying to impress another classmate, one who was subsequently asked to leave and had a reputation for muttering anti-Semitic remarks under his breath during classes on the Holocaust.
"It was one-upmanship," Mr. Hannaford says.
The headmaster is not buying the notion that boys will be boys. Nor does he accept the argument, offered by several of the boys who were suspended, that this was a personal conversation.
Heinz Klatt notes that the transgression didn't occur on school property, didn't use the school's letterhead, no teacher was involved and it was not part of any class assignment. "It was a totally private chat board, with controlled access," says the former school psychologist, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario.
Speculating on why a Jewish student would post an anti-Semitic message, Prof. Klatt, who specializes in political correctness, says it was perhaps "stupid, adolescent, unreflected, shortsighted, irresponsible thinking." Or maybe it was "a conflict between him and his parents."
But he adds that he doesn't just blame the teenager. Prof. Klatt says the fact that a 15-year-old would talk that way about the Second World War signifies that "history has basically been abandoned as a serious subject in schools."
Mr. Hannaford makes no apology for the long arm of the school. "There was an ethical and moral responsibility to act," he said. "It was too important to leave alone."
Still, he knows he is venturing into uncharted territory. It worries him that his own daughter, a Grade 8 student at, yes, Branksome, spends time chatting on MSN.
"As educators, as parents, we don't have any idea about the medium our children are dealing with. How are we dealing with the fact we can hear private conversations? What are the implications? How do we discipline? Given the fact that this is different from selling drugs, where does our responsibility begin and end?"
All good questions. Mr. Hannaford himself knows the trickiness of technology. He's legendary around the school for having phoned someone -- he won't say whom -- leaving a message and forgetting to hang up the phone for a very long time.
Teens, understandably, are the most indiscreet. Some, like Katelyn Clutterbuck, 16, learn after a bad experience. A couple of years ago, she spent hours on MSN, signing on right after she got home from school and staying on late into the night.
Then she described an on-line fight among half a dozen girls that escalated and led to multiple suspensions. "Things can be spread a lot faster on MSN," she says ruefully. Katelyn, who lives in a community near Toronto, has cut her on-line chatting back to an hour a day.
Natalie Eckler, 12, did the same after having a fight with a good friend. On-line, people "say all these really mean things -- and pretend nothing happened the next day," she notes. "They say things they don't have the guts to say to you in person."
The Grade 7 student at Toronto French School says her erstwhile friend wrote a whole page of invective, "calling me dumb ass and stuff," that left her in tears. She said she never confronted the friend, in part because she wasn't even sure the friend was to blame.
"Friends tell friends passwords, and they sign on just to be mischievous. You never know who you're talking to," says Natalie, with a maturity that belies her years. "When they're getting mad at you, you never know who it is. There are so many misunderstandings that can happen."
Then there is teenage revenge, braggadocio or plain bad judgment. A generation ago, if you were so indiscreet as to pose naked for your boyfriend, you might find him photocopying it and sticking it up in the boy's washroom when the relationship went bust.
Clearly, the legal system hasn't caught up with teenage realities. Last month, Toronto police charged a 16-year-old boy with possessing and distributing child pornography after he posted five nude photos of his former girlfriend, also 16, on the Internet. The boy even constructed the Web page to make it seem as though she had placed them there herself and was inviting sexual contact.
The photos were taken with the girl's consent. But she never intended them for the Internet, which is where they still are. Police have been unable to get the anonymous webmaster to remove the photos.
Last year, a 17-year-old boy at The Delhi Public School, one of India's better-known private schools, used his cellphone camera to video himself having oral sex with a classmate. He passed it on to three of his friends. And eventually, someone offered it for sale on Baazee.com, eBay's Indian subsidiary.
The Harvard-educated American head of Baazee.com travelled to New Delhi to co-operate with authorities, and was arrested. The boy, who went to Nepal to escape the media glare, was arrested on his return to India and put in a juvenile detention centre. The girl's parents sent her to Canada.
Some Internet victims, such as Paris Hilton, the blond hotel heiress, turn humiliation into gold. In 2003, a homemade sex video she shot at 19 with a boyfriend was downloaded by millions. Now at 24, she has her own line of perfume and jewellery, is recording an album and starring in films such as House of Wax, which opened yesterday. She also is paid $150,000 to $200,000 to appear at a party for 20 minutes, more if it's in Japan.
But mostly, Internet exposure is not a good thing. In January, Prince Harry, 20, apologized after someone, apparently using a cellphone, snapped a photo of him at a costume party wearing a Nazi officer's uniform and swastika armband just two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Closer to home, a mistrial was declared in the so-called Johnathan murder case in February after Joseph Brean, an alert and, not coincidentally, young reporter at the National Post wrote that the Crown's star witness seemed to have contradicted her testimony on the Internet.
Mr. Brean, 27, says he noted that the witness, 15, had flirted with one of the three accused over the Internet and that the boy had e-mailed her from jail. "I knew these two kids were Internet-savvy, so I did what I always do when I want to find out more about someone -- Googled the hell out of them."
The defence had argued that a lurid phone conversation about murder, which the girl had tape-recorded, was designed merely to impress her, a vampire fan. She denied in the witness box having any interest in blood.
But Mr. Brean found her blog, an on-line journal she kept during the trial in which she said something quite different. Searching a vampire-themed forum, he also found a sanitized version of her Web page but knew enough to click on the cached version, which shows the way it originally looked.
"It's her," he says, "and it's got a picture of her." Among favourite things she listed: blood, pain, cemeteries and knives.
Later, some argued that the girl was merely fantasizing and had told the truth in the witness box. "So she's role-playing," says Dr. Jeffrey of the U of T. "But it's not so fair when you're in the middle of a really serious trial and you're the star witness. Did her lawyers ever warn her about this? Most of these lawyers haven't even integrated the Internet into their practice."
Perhaps the witness thought youth culture and middle-aged-lawyer culture were two solitudes. Just as the Royal St. George's student thought his chat board was never going to be seen by adults. But with the exception of firewalls, walls don't exist in cyberspace.
"It's a major transformation of public and private space," Dr. Jeffrey. says. "McLuhan was always talking about extending ourselves. This didn't even take place within the school. And it's all over the Internet."
In a badly timed marketing move this week, Royal St. George's College sent out a glossy advertisement touting how it "continues to embrace its Christian values to this day. . ." It noted that its students start using laptop computers beginning in Grade 3. And the ad copy began with a question: "Does a school with high academic standards and a supportive, inclusive atmosphere where the teachers know all the students sound too good to be true?"
The school is located on a narrow residential street in the Annex, a downtown neighbourhood favoured by Margaret Atwood, Jane Jacobs and, most recently, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson. It was founded in 1964 as a choir school in the red brick manse next to the Church of St.-Albans-the-Martyr, originally Toronto's Anglican cathedral. At the time, there were about 80 students. Today, there are more than 400.
Some of those who live near the school say there is friction over school traffic and Royal St. George's plans to add a second gym, a judo room, additional offices and an underground parking lot.
Lynn Spink, who belongs to a residents group that meets with the school, said she was shocked when she went to a meeting last March and saw this sign posted outside the school's library: "Work harder. Millions of illegals depend on you."
Ms. Spink said she took the sign down and sent it to the headmaster, suggesting that the students be assigned a research project on anti-immigration campaigns. She has yet to hear back.
Some of the boys, she says, are "lovely." Others are not.
"They also call us 'commies,' " adds the adjunct professor at York University, producing a copy of the school's newspaper, called The Grifter, in which the student editor writes, quoting other students, "Why don't those commies leave us alone?"
"These kids park their Mercedes SUVs in front of my house," Ms. Spink says. "Maybe they call me a commie because I drive a Ford.
"It's cars, not boys, that's been the main problem."
Last fall, the residents group conducted a traffic study and concluded that 300 cars a day were dropping off about 400 students. Louise Morin, who lives across the street, says she has been cursed by both parents and boys for photographing cars parked on the sidewalk.
"Last fall, I was counting traffic when two boys -- 13 or 14 years old -- said one to another, in my direction, 'They're all a bunch of Jews,' " says Ms. Morin, who is a divorce lawyer -- and not Jewish.
Ms. Morin says she complained to Mr. Hannaford about the cursing. "Now I hear him wringing his hands and saying, 'Woe is me.' He had a warning and he ignored it."
In his office, meanwhile, Mr. Hannaford takes a condolence call from a Jewish parent. "We'll just work through it," he says warmly into the phone before hanging up. "The most unbelievable support is from our Jewish community."
He sits down again to finish talking about the incident. "We're not abandoning him, even if we know for sure he's never coming back. We're in contact with the family every day," he says, referring to the 15-year-old student.
Then he sighs again and quotes a Christian motto: "Love the sinner, hate the sin."
Jan Wong is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
Words of advice
Ask your kid how many e-mail addresses he or she has.
Ask if the class has a chat room.
Ask about the last time he or she went into a chat room and what was said.
Keep the computer in a public area. Alternately, throw it out the window.
Don't write anything you can't imagine reading out loud tomorrow to your school principal -- and explaining sentence by sentence what you meant.
Don't write anything you wouldn't want someone to forward to this newspaper.
Lost in translation
It's easy to misread e-mail, so kids use "emoticons" to denote tone. Here are some examples:
sticking out tongue :-P
lips are sealed :-X
foot in mouth :-!
Teens also use lingo parents find mystifying. A brief glossary:
lol laugh out loud
bff best friends forever
brb be right back
rofl rolling on floor laughing
atm at the moment
gtggot to go (translation: my mom is yelling to get off MSN).
-- Apple iChat