The internet is a powerful thing. Words typed in anonymity online – whether intended to be taken seriously or not -- often bite back with real world consequences. Minnesota high school student Reid Sagehorn is finding this out the hard way.
Sagehorn has been suspended for over two months after sending out a tweet claiming to have had sexual relations with a teacher at his school. Sagehorn, a student at Rogers High School, sent out the tweet in response to a rumor on the “Rogers Confessions” page on ask.fm. Ask.fm is a popular social media site in which users – often through a veil of anonymity – ask and answer questions online.
A rumor on the site alleged Sagehorn had sexual contact with a female teacher at his school. In typical high school male bravado, Sagehorn responded to the rumor saying that “Yes, actually” he did have a sexual interaction with the teacher. Sagehorn’s claim spread quickly amongst students and didn’t take long to reach school administrators.
Police interviewed the 28-year-old teacher at the center of the rumor and found that Sagehorn’s claim was false. Rogers High School suspended Sagehorn for two months for making a false claim that had the very real ability to tarnish a teacher’s reputation and ruin her career.
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The student body at Rogers High has taken to Sagehorn’s defense. They say his claim was just a joke and that his suspension is an overreaction. What’s worse, the students are directing much of their anger at the teacher involved in the rumor, as if she somehow contributed to Sagehorn’s suspension.
Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen spoke to the Star Tribune recently about Sagehorn’s comment and the student body’s protests.
“It’s like screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater or ‘I have a bomb’ on an airplane,” Beahen said. “If you say something on a very public forum, there are consequences. This young, innocent teacher is the victim here…no one seems to care about the teacher … and that’s a sad experience. She’s, frankly, being bullied and harassed by students.”
Elk Area River Schools Superintendent Mark Bezek defended the teacher as well.
“The teacher involved, she did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said. “In the cyberworld, she’s getting crucified. Our staff members wonder: ‘Is this going to happen to me?’”
Police Chief Beahen says that in addition to his suspension, Sagehorn may face criminal charges. Since the teacher would be committing a crime if she had enagaged in sex with Sagehorn, his claim that she did so is a false criminal accusation.
“That’s a crime,” Beahen said.
Sagehorn may face either felony or misdemeanor charges for his comment. For a felony charge, Beahen said, “You have to prove intent, that the accused was fully aware that harm would occur.”
A misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge could apply if prosecutors decide not to pursue the felony charge. Beahen says the county attorney will decide which route to take following an investigation.
Superintendent Bezek says the ordeal serves as a warning to students to take their online conduct seriously. He called the internet a powerful thing that “can also cause so much harm. We’ve just given it to them without the proper training. You don’t let a kid drive a car, shoot guns without the proper training.”