by CHRIS ROGERS
Anyone who had a court date last Thursday and Friday had to compete with scores of local sixth graders, some of whom were wearing sport coats. The Winona County District Court and Criminal Justice Coordinating Council hosted their annual tour of the legal system for sixth-grade social studies students with an added twist: cyber bullying.
"How many of you are on social media?" Public Defender Carmaine Sturino asked a group of more than a dozen students from the Winona Middle School (WMS) as they prepared to go into the court room for a mock trial on online bullying. Virtually all of them are on Facebook. "What else do you use?" Sturino asked. "Snapchat?" Half the group raised their hands. "Instagram? Twitter?" Yes and yes, the students replied with raised arms. "How many of you know someone who has hurt themselves because of bullying?" Sturino asked. One girl raised her hand.
Winona County is not on the growing list of U.S. courtrooms where high profile cyber bullying cases have been tried, but the events described in the fictional mock trial case is not so unbelievable. The defendant, Dana, played by WMS student Gabbie Shadle, is accused of cyber bullying. Dana, who is a girl, became estranged from her female friend Sam, played by WMS student Abigail Steinfeldt, because Sam started dating one of Dana's ex-boyfriends. Several witnesses said Dana took an unflattering photo of Sam and posted it onto Facebook with the comment, "What an idiot!" Because Dana had "unfriended" Sam, Sam could not see the post, but everyone else at school could and left mean comments like, "Who would want to be friends with that moron." Sam asked Dana to take the post down, but she refused.
"The state calls Sam to the stand," the prosecutor (Daniel Florness) informed the judge (Jakob Miller). Miller, seated on high and wearing flowing black robes, nodded. Florness, a red-haired boy in a dark grey suit coat, leaned forward in his high backed leather chair, and asked Sam, "How did the post make you feel?"
"Embarrassed," Sam replied. "People started calling me names like 'loser' and 'moron.' No one would sit with me at lunch … it got to the point where I didn't even want to go to school anymore."
The state's argument is that Dana's actions created an abusive environment for Sam at school, violating anti-bullying laws.
"Your Honor, this case is not that simple," the defense attorney (Anissa Lee) countered. Dana thought the post would be funny and that teasing Sam would rekindle their estranged friendship, Lee explained. Dana testified that When Sam first demanded that Dana take the post down, Dana was in front of other people and she did not want to look weak, so she refused. Sam confronted Dana again about the post and threatened Dana with a pocket knife. Dana took the post down after that, but then people started whispering about her. "They were calling me a bully and a coward because I let Sam scare me," Dana testified. Dana said that posting the photo in the first place was a mistake, and was contrite about hurting Sam.
"[The script] was intended to make you ask questions to try to figure out whether or not this is bullying because it could go either way," explained assistant county attorney Stephanie Nuttall, who helped organize the mock trial.
Steinfeldt's peers were not swayed by her performance or by her character's story, however. A jury of WMS students was nearly unanimous in convicting Dana of bullying. WMS student-juror Matt Thesing explained that he felt Dana was guilty because she was repeatedly mean to Sam — at one point Dana pushed Sam into the lockers and, after taking it down, Dana later reposted the embarrassing photo.
"It was a lot different than Judge Judy," WMS student Emma Koehler reflected. "Judge Judy is a lot more exciting," one of her classmates agreed.
During the tour of the courthouse, sixth-grade students from WMS, Saint Stanislaus' Elementary School, Riverway Learning Community, Saint Matthew's Lutheran School, Lewiston-Altura Intermediate School, and Immanuel Lutheran School in Lewiston learned about their rights as defendants, how prosecutors and judges enforce the law, and how services like anger management can help reform offenders.