‘Confessions’ websites are popping up at schools across the country, proving that everyone has something to share

Like many students who created “Confessions pages” this spring, the administrator of University of Wisconsin at Green Bay’s page was surprised her campus didn’t already have one. It was mid-February, and other pages in the state’s university system were booming.

Two months later, her page had nearly 2,300 likes, and she was seeking help to manage an average of more than 100 confessions a day, with as many as 200 on the busiest days.

The administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared being punished by her school, described the page as a place for “outpouring of support and respect from the Green Bay community.”

“We are a very small community,” she said. “I think it’s needed for those to see you’re not the only one with these questions and you’re not the only one with these problems.”

Confessions pages like the one for Green Bay contain anonymous posts submitted by students, often through third-party websites like SurveyMonkey and CollegeConfessions. They have stirred controversy this spring at high schools and colleges across the country, where administrators have tried to shut down pages and in some cases, have punished the students who run them.

The Green Bay site follows the typical Confessions mold, featuring posts that range widely from serious struggles with alcoholism, eating disorders and relationships to less serious appeals for dating partners and drinking buddies.

Two confessions she posted April 16 illustrate the extremes. One read: “I’m bi and have had serious relationships with other females. Too bad I’ll never be able to tell my family…” on which someone commented a few hours later: “You can tell them. They will eventually get over it and accept who you are because they love you. … You’ll never know unless you try.”

Meanwhile, another student asked: “who wants to drink tonight? preferably females??”

School administrators have not contacted her about the page, the Green Bay student said. She thinks that’s because she carefully filters the confessions to exclude those that bully students.

“I think that’s what’s been the saving grace of our page is that making it so administrators aren’t caring as much,” she said. “We’re doing really well at monitoring.”

Other schools have not been as hands-off. After Humboldt State University in California became aware of “HSU Confessions” in March, school officials complained of copyright infringement.

“We considered it misleading and a misrepresentation because it had no affiliation with the university,” said Paul Mann, the school’s senior news and information officer. “It was not university related and it made it look as if the university made it.”

The student who created it, Michelle, said in a Facebook message that she received two emails from the marketing office demanding she delete the page or change the name. She eventually voluntarily shut down the page, but the school’s attitude prompted her to “creatively circumvent” the acronym “HSU” and create an incarnation of the page: “Hills Stairs and Umbrellas Confessions.” Mann said the college won’t contest the newly named page.

“If the school had just told me that they were just trying to cover themselves and the school’s reputation and maybe had tried to work with me, I would have been less of a smart ass about it,” said Michelle, who declined to give her last name because she is worried about backlash from the school. “Though I understand that the page might make the school look bad, I didn’t use the logo and I even had a disclaimer saying that it was not affiliated with the school in any way.”

“I just thought, Facebook needs to know about this”

Laws are often unclear about how law enforcement and school officials should police and monitor potentially harmful anonymous posts, leading to a myriad of ways in which schools handle such pages.

Tucson High School Principal Clarice Clash received complaints from parents and teachers in February that students were posting what she described as “threatening” confessions using students’ full names.

“I went to the page, and it had some very sensitive language toward students that could be a real life changer,” Clash said. “It wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get some steam off our chest. We hate the bell schedule.’”

By using names, the posts crossed a line, and the page not longer represented a harmless public forum, she said.

“I do think students need an outlet, but that outlet can’t be abusive,” Clash said. “I just thought, Facebook needs to know about this. We agreed that it was abusive.”

Jeril Hehn, associate principal of West High School in Billings, Mont., sympathized with Clash. Parents brought to her attention a slew of confessions pages with threatening, sexually explicit posts, some of which also used full names.

School administrators responded by bringing in Earl Campbell, the Billings Police Department cyber crimes liaison to the FBI, to lead separate hour-long educational assemblies aimed at each grade level. Campbell ended each session of about 500 students with a slideshow of photos he was able to pull off the students’ Facebook pages.

West High also disciplined “a handful of students,” for offenses ranging from sharing “lewd, inappropriate” posts to administering the pages, Hehn said. The consequences ranged from warnings to three-day suspensions.

Hehn, who is studying education policy as part of her doctorate studies, said she knows the law can get fuzzy.

“Our heads are kind of tied because we have no authority to shut it down,” However, she added, “if you use our name and use our logo, you’ve just brought us into this situation.”

Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center, said this is not necessarily true. A school with a trademark “runs the risk” of it being used as part of a discussion it does not like.

“There’s a difference between protecting your identity in the marketplace and having the right to dictate what people say about you in the marketplace — even if they say it sucks,” Goldstein said.

“The fact that it might create an effect on campus is not an end-around for the First Amendment,” he added.

Hehn described technology as not just a tool for students but a way of life — and a primary mode of expression. She uses the analogy of writing on the bathroom wall or passing notes during class with two dangerous exceptions: A confession on Facebook can be both permanent and worldwide. In her day, teachers always intercepted the notes, janitors always cleaned the bathroom.

Even parents are confused, with some angry at schools for what they see as wrongful punishment of off-campus speech and others angry that schools aren’t doing enough.

For Hehn, the school had a responsibility to intervene. She cited a test provided by the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, where the court ruled that students could wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War because they did not “materially and substantially” interfere with school operations.

“Our job as school officials is to keep kids safe, and to keep kids in school,” she said. “Did we rise to the level of Tinker? Yeah. We were having ‘material and substantial disruption.’”

‘Stay within the legal boundaries’

Mike, the 24-year-old creator behind College-Confessions.com, decided to start his site this spring after seeing colleges try to shut down Confessions pages. A recent graduate himself, Mike said he saw value in the pages.

“Instead of scaring away the students, let’s try to make it someplace where students can get stuff off their chest,” he said. “I think it’s a good tool for universities to get an uncensored view of what students think. There is a good aspect to this and that’s what we’re trying to foster.”

Mike, who requested only his first name be used because he is concerned about his liability for the site, started the site with a friend in March. The page partners with administrators running Confessions pages on Facebook to publish posts on both sites. More than 30,000 total confessions have been submitted so far.

Confessions pages are often shut down because moderators don’t monitor as aggressively as they should, Mike said. He said he rejects about one of every five confessions, mostly duplicates and spam but sometimes confessions of serious crimes. The site began tracking IP addresses after someone confessed to rape, and Mike said the site has reached out to local police after certain confessions.

The sites are a good place for students to vent, but the downside to the anonymity is that those who need help may not receive it, Mike said, adding that he tries to make sure those confessors who truly need attention receive it — sometimes by providing them with the suicide hotline numbers, sometimes by tweaking the site’s voting system so its “Top 10 Confessions” include them.

Michelle, the Humboldt student, said she’s not sure what value students see in the page, but believes it helps people to have a place where they can share their stories.

“The confession pages are cool because everyone has something to say that they might not want to tell anyone else,” Michelle said. “Since it’s anonymous, it allows people to tell their secrets.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer.