Friday, April 12, 2024

The @crlssecrets account on Instagram asks submitters to “refrain from just hating on people.”

Like an online version of the burn book from “Mean Girls,” Instagram accounts spreading gossip and “spilling the tea” have grown common in middle and high schools. Cambridge Rindge and Latin is no exception, and a fight there has shown the real-world consequences of online comments.

With phone cameras ready, students gathered to watch two Rindge students brawl after school March 15 – the result of anonymous comments published on the @crls_secrets Instagram account, known as CRLS Secrets 2.0. Punches were thrown, and one student had to leave in an ambulance.

Police confirm that a teen was summonsed to a clerk’s hearing after the fight, facing charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon – a shod foot – and that the victim was taken to a local hospital for treatment.

“Fighting is a way to solve conflict, and that’s what they did,” said one anonymous commenter on another Instagram account – @crlssecrets, also called CRLS True Secrets.

Videos of the fight were posted on CRLS Secrets 2.0, which has since taken down many posts and according to a school email is under investigation.

“It affects all of us,” sophomore Ella Flannery said. “You can tell your best friend something, and she’s the only person who knows, and now it shows up on Instagram.”

Known and followed

Knowledge of the various accounts seem widespread. Nearly 95 percent of 139 students surveyed had heard of them. The online survey was sent to around 700 students March 27 and stayed open for around two weeks. When the original account, CRLS True Secrets, was created, it accumulated 100 followers within four hours, working its way up to an eventual follower base of 600 – more than one-third of a student population of 1,867.

“I hear a lot of people talking about this in the hallways like it’s a joke, but stuff like this can lead to suicide,” said Tia Shamey, a first-year student. “In my last school, one of my friends ended up in a hospital because a girl said something about her in one of these types of accounts.”

More than 90 percent of students surveyed said the accounts were at least somewhat harmful. CRLS True Secrets’ owners rejected responsibility in an interview conducted March 31 and April 1 through direct messaging on Instagram. “All this account does is amplify the community’s voices,” they said. “The hate of anything being posted is simply a manifestation of the hate so prevalent in this school.”

Dangerous territory

The main entry to the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in February 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The “community’s voices,” as posted on CRLS True Secrets, often include sensitive topics. The account is known to share sexually explicit posts, as well as comments about students’ relationships and activities. Posts on other anonymous Instagram accounts about the school have included homophobic and ableist sentiments.

“People are getting hurt,” said Finn Graham, a first-year student. “I’ve seen this school and my middle school not do anything about things that were transphobic, homophobic, anything like that. And it doesn’t make me feel safe and welcome in the school community.”

For many students, it’s an unfortunate reality of high school. While the sentiment “boys will be boys” has gone out of fashion in Cambridge, the idea that “teenagers will be teenagers” has not. “It’s not something the school can change,” Flannery said. “I’m not going to [talk about these accounts] in some classes, because there are always the kids who will kind of look and snicker and whisper to each other after you say something.”

Addressing harm

Having in-school conversations about the repercussions of these posts could be important, according to almost 80 percent of survey respondents. Flynn Le Febvre, a senior, said the school community needed to “at least acknowledge it, because it feels like it’s something that, if it’s not acknowledged, then it’s not [seen as important].”

Shortly after the March 15 fight, high school administrators sent out a community email saying “a fight occurred at dismissal time that we believe is connected to inappropriate and harmful content that was posted on anonymous social media accounts.” Some students felt this wasn’t enough. “It was mostly about the actual fight that happened and less about the actual posts and how terrible they could be for some people,” Graham said.

The @crls.compliments account on Instagram is for “compliments for other students, teachers and friends.”

The classroom conversations can be difficult to hold. The school walks a fine line between fighting cyberbullying and giving the accounts more power. Still, many students interviewed believe there is room for responsible conversation. Some suggested that spaces such as Falcon Block – a period similar to homeroom when students gather for 30 minutes twice a week – could be used. Others said the school should focus on supporting and reaching out to students affected by the accounts, or on finding and punishing more Instagram account owners.

This last goal is the most challenging. Instagram offers anonymity, and the owners of accounts such as CRLS True Secrets have remained a “true secret” thus far. “We have taken great measures to [ensure] our privacy, so we have not faced any consequences,” they said. “And if we were to say anything about the situation, it’s how easy it was for us to create this account, and how easy it’s for everyone else to create knockoffs.”

Some students have found other ways to combat the gossip and cyberbullying. Alternative accounts spreading love and positivity have sprouted, including @crls.compliments. “We try to encourage people to compliment each other because it just feels good. Obviously, we’re not getting as many compliments as the ‘tea’ accounts have gotten gossip and drama, but we’re still trying to make a change,” the account owners said.