Orono High School victim, family speak out after 'violent, disgusting' cyberbullying

Kevin Bennett, Bangor Daily News

Alexis Henkel, left, talks about her recent bullying with her father Norbert, center, and brother Austin, right, and her mother Judy, not pictured. The Henkel family met with the Bangor Daily News at the Veazie police station on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, to discuss the problem of cyberbulling.

VEAZIE — A former Orono High School student is facing felony terrorizing and harassment by electronic communication charges after posting dozens of threatening, anonymous messages on an Internet account of a former classmate she thought was flirting with her boyfriend, according to Veazie police.

Although the Bangor Daily News usually does not identify crime victims, Orono High School sophomore Alexis Henkel, 15, her parents, Norbert and Judy Henkel, and her twin brother, Austin, agreed to talk publicly about what they’ve experienced in the hope of educating others about the impact that cyberbullying has on those who become targets.

The alleged cyberbully — a 16-year-old girl who used to go to Orono High School with the victim but now attends a high school in southern Maine — was charged with the offenses on Nov. 1 by Veazie police Sgt. Keith Emery.

“I’ve handled harassment calls for 24 years and have never seen threats as violent, disgusting and vulgar as these,” Emery said of the anonymous posts, which began appearing on the victim’s Tumblr blog account in late September.

“They started out telling the girl she was ugly, a whore, slut, et cetera. As the messages continued through October, they got threatening,” the sergeant said. “Just very vulgar and horrific threats. There were dozens of these types of messages.”

Following are some of the offensive posts:

— “Ready for tomorrow night? I’d learn to sleep with your eyes open if I were you. I’m dulling my knife right now so when I stab you in the face, gut and legs it’ll be painful as possible.”

— “You know how all these environmental friendly groups say that waste should be properly disposed of? Well, come on Lexi, do the world a favor, and properly dispose of your [expletive deleted] self!”

— “Your face is like a baby seal. Fat, furry and just asking to be clubbed to death.”

Assisting in the investigation were school administrators, school resource officers and Internet technology experts from Orono High, and the high school in southern Maine the suspect now attends.

Emery said last week that the suspect, whose name was withheld because of her age, confessed after she was interviewed at the Veazie police station. The terrorizing charge was elevated to felony status because the threats prompted the victim and her family to evacuate their home on several occasions, he said.

“Hopefully, she’ll be charged with multiple counts from the [district attorney’s] office of harassment by electronic communication device,” Emery said. “The terrorizing comes from the nature of some of the threats. — things like ‘I’m dulling my knife so that when I stab you it hurts worse, I’m on my way, Hey, come see me outside’ — things like that really cause the fear to set in.

“Quite honestly if there was something more I could have charged her with, I would have,” he said.

The suspect was released to her mother with specific conditions through the Maine Department of Probation’s juvenile division, Emery said. Among other things, she is to have no contact with the victim, attend school and obey the rules of her home, he said. She is allowed to use the Internet only for school purposes and must be supervised while doing so.

Emery said this week that he already has reported two violations of the Internet use conditions, and that juvenile probation officials issued warnings to the suspect in response.

In addition, Emery served the suspect with a temporary protection from harassment order that the mother of the victim obtained from court on her daughter’s behalf. Judy Henkel said she obtained a permanent protection order on Thursday. A permanent protection from harassment order lasts for one year, but can be renewed.

Emery said the 16-year-old is scheduled to appear at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor on Dec. 24, though Penobscot County Assistant District Attorney James Aucoin, whose duties include prosecuting juvenile matters, said Wednesday that he has yet to receive the case from juvenile authorities.

Emery said his investigation revealed that the girl wrote the offensive posts “because she thought [the victim] was flirting with her boyfriend.”

Despite what her daughter went through, Judy Henkel said she sympathized with the mother of the alleged cyberbully.

“I couldn’t’ imagine somebody coming to me, handing me [Internet printouts] and saying, ‘Your daughter wrote this.’ It would kill me as a mother, and I do feel sorry for [the suspect’s] mother. You can’t not feel sorry for another mother.”

During an interview at the Veazie police station, the Henkels said that Alexis — also known as Lexi — began receiving disturbing messages on her Tumblr account in late September. The messages were posted anonymously, they said. Many of them were worded in such a way that they appeared to have been written by a male and that the author knew Lexi and was familiar with her school.

“There were death threats against her, [and] they were very disturbing [and of a] sexual nature,” Norbert Henkel said.

Judy Henkel said the messages “spoke of dismembering her body, stalking her the rest of her life, raping her children. … It was horrible.”

As soon as the messages began showing up on her account, Lexi went to her mother, who contacted Veazie police, the Henkels said.

“We really didn’t know how to take it at first, how seriously to take it, but as it was going on [and we were] reading those messages, it felt like somebody [who] writes that would be so disturbed you don’t know what else they would do,” Norbert Henkel said.

“We really became worried about her well-being and her safety,” he said of his daughter. “There were days we left home, we went somewhere else, for the simple reason that somebody was threatening to come over to the house and shoot at the house.”

In addition to the death threats, there were “messages that would just [call] me names, or they would like tell me to hang myself,” Lexi said.

In an effort to protect their daughter, Lexi’s parents took over her account so that they could monitor the messages without her having to be exposed to them.

“We kept her Tumblr account open and let them keep sending them because the more we got, the better we thought we would be [in finding out who sent them], and then once we knew we had enough and Sgt. Emery said we were good, then we shut the site down,” Judy Henkel said.

The messages — which since have been removed from Tumblr — continued to come in during a three-week period. Dozens of messages were sent, the Henkels said.

Twenty-seven of them included death threats, the Henkels said. Emery said that by subpoenaing Tumblr and obtaining the Internet Protocol addresses from which the messages were sent, investigators learned that all but a few of the anonymous posts were sent from the suspect’s school in southern Maine. The Bangor Daily News is not naming the school because doing so might identify the suspect.

The harassment then moved to Lexi’s cellphone, but that came to an end when her mother modified her account with Verizon so she could block calls from certain numbers.

Concerned for their daughter’s safety, the Henkels kept Lexi at home until they could find out who was threatening her and until she felt ready to return.

Lexi — who noted that Homecoming was among the activities she missed — said last week that she planned to go back to school on Wednesday, after the long Veterans Day weekend. Judy Henkel said Lexi did indeed return to school on Wednesday.

Orono High Principal James Chasse said that student confidentiality rules prevented him discussing any specifics about the cyberbullying case.

Also prohibited from discussing specifics — including whether any disciplinary action was taken — were the principal and school resource officer of the high school in southern Maine the suspect now attends.

Bullying — both on the Internet and in person — is something that school officials in Maine take seriously, Chasse and the southern Maine principal said this week in separate interviews.

Chasse said that after learning of the case involving the Henkels, Orono school officials immediately began working with law enforcement and contacted Tumblr, which he said is not accessible on the Orono school system’s Internet network.

“We are very happy that none of the bullying messages originated from our school, and that the cooperation between a few towns’ law agencies and schools appears to have been very effective,” he wrote in an email Saturday about the case.

“If it were one of our students, I have little doubt that we would have recommended expulsion of the student(s) to our school board,” he said. “The student being bullied is returning to school and will be afforded all opportunity to be academically on track. We met several times with the family and recently created a plan for a successful return.”

“We continue to teach and promote kindness, respect and responsibility and deal with issues individually as they arise. I hope that the story serves to communicate to families the challenges of digital citizenship facing this generation,” Chasse said, adding, “The student is and has been very brave.”

The southern Maine school resource officer said Wednesday that cyberbullying is difficult for schools to police because it takes place in cyberspace, as opposed to on school property, where teachers can see it or hear it. Oftentimes, bullies find ways to remain anonymous.

And the technology keeps changing, the resource officer said. Facebook, which has been a problem for school officials for the past several years, is being supplanted by new means of communicating, such as SnapChat.

In March of this year, Maine lawmakers gave final passage to a bill to protect students from bullying in schools.

Among other things, An Act to Prohibit Bullying in Schools requires the state’s education commissioner to develop a model policy to address bullying and cyberbullying for use in Maine schools. The model policy is posted on the Maine Department of Education’s website.

In 2010, there were at least 14 suicides resulting from bullying nationally, according to The Associated Press.

“I can honestly say through this all [that] I’m glad my husband and I raised our children the way we did because they knew no matter what, they could come to us,” Judy Henkel said.

“Had it not been for that, I would have buried my daughter,” said Henkel, her voice raspy with emotion.

“She told me she thought about killing herself, so it’s been tough. Had it not been for Sgt. Emery and for her knowing she could come to us and we would take action, she wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “I thank Sgt. Emery from the bottom of my heart for what he did. He saved my daughter’s life in every way, shape and form, and if this saves one kid that’s going through this, then my job is done.”

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Comments

Kristina Gailloux's picture

So beautiful

Well just from the picture on this website, if this is the girl that was being bullied, you are beautiful and I along with many people are glad you never did something to hurt yourself, just because of what some stupid girl was saying. Glad to see someone is getting in trouble for trying to ruin someones life all because she was just too insecure about herself.

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