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Popular student-run website shut down after high school principal sends parent advisory.
Record Photo/Christopher Koutsis

NORTHPORT/EAST NORTHPORT
Life And Death Of NorthportSevs.com

Private, student-run website shut down after letter from school

By Edward Puerta

If you know your way around a computer, you can still access parts of NorthportSevs.com — their mission statement, some of the archives — but the heart of the controversial “underground” website, the discussion forums used by hundreds of Northport students, is now gone.

Online for about 10 months, the website — presumably named after Northport students’ name for a popular hangout, the 7–Eleven on Laurel Avenue — was apparently removed over the weekend, shortly after a letter was sent to parents of high school students by Northport principal Theresa Oropallo, asking them to keep their “youngsters” off the site.

The letter followed a number of particularly scandalous postings, including an alleged picture of two topless female students that was posted and pulled a few weeks ago. Almost from its beginning, NorthportSevs contained postings of marijuana pipes, teen drinking, and unrestrained use of expletives. On the other hand, it also contained witticisms, theological and philosophical meanderings and social insight. Students also used the site to coordinate paintball games, find out the latest school news, and plan parties.

The website was immensely popular and well-visited — it recently reported getting its 100,000th hit. Students were always on the website forums. In fact, a post went up about the Latham Bros. lumberyard fire only minutes after the fire began.

The website also suffered from the pitfalls of similar forum-style sites in that the information posted by users was unverified — and not always accurate. For example, someone posted that the Northport boys varsity lacrosse team was losing 4-0 at the end of the first quarter in their game against West Islip. The first quarter actually ended with Northport winning 3-2. Sometimes, students would get into Internet arguments over posts and topics. There were some threats of physical violence. But at least one student told The Record that he had made several friends because of the site.

Toward the end of its run, there were also wild rumors that the Northport Police were investigating the site. (Northport Police Chief Ric Bruckenthal said he’d never heard of “Sevs,” but had been investigating a site centered around an area middle school. That site was shut down the day after he began the investigation.)

Although district officials say they had nothing to do with the site being taken down, access was blocked shortly after Oropallo’s letter went out. The Record’s attempts to reach the webmaster, known as “The Baron,” were unsuccessful.

Oropallo said that to this day, she has never seen the website. “I don’t get it here at school — we have a filtering system — and I don’t have a computer at home. I’ve only seen the website on things that have been brought in to me,” she said.

What she saw, however, was enough to prompt the letter. “It’s terrible. I don’t understand why students would say such nasty things to each other, about each other,” she said. She added that there have been repercussions — arguments in school — that have stemmed from the website. “It’s disruptive to the whole educational process.”

The principal acknowledged that the site is beyond the school district’s administrative reach, but she added, “I felt parents should be told that they do have control over this” with filtering software. “I’m not restricting it. I’m telling parents that they have” a means to restrict it, she said.

It prompted immediate response on Sevs’ forums.

Northport student Jim Betz posted the following on a forum, addressed to his principal:

“First off, this site has NO affiliation with the Northport/East Northport school district. As so obviously stated by your newsletter home, which I received today 5/29, since we the students/staff cannot even reach the site within the school… There are no rules to the internet, the internet is an information super highway. The anonymity of the internet is also a way for people to get their points across without the danger of being picked on or, as you said in your letter, beat up.

“Second. You have no right in the world to be sending this newsletter home and telling my or other kids’ parents how to control or guide them.

“Third. The ‘basic premise’ by which we live our lives is our own. I and my peers do not have to live by YOUR standards. We may have to abide by your rules at school, but at home our lives are none of your business. Our world would be a lot better place if LESS people lived by the principles in which you believe in. The standards which you the school and society create are the main cause of hate, violence, crime, and segregation. The school’s wells and after school activities greatly create segregation and hate within the school. If you are not a jock, artistically or musically talented, to the school you are useless and to society, you are useless…”

District administration took a very different view.

“Disgusting, vile and outrageous,” said superintendent Dr. William Brosnan, describing what he’d seen of the website.

Brosnan said school officials were concerned by the forums’ frank discussions. “We’ve had at least two incidents… in which something has occurred at the high school which has been triggered by stuff on the website,” he said.

However, attempts to take action hit a legal roadblock. “We have discussed it with our attorney… and we were advised, so far, that right now ‘there is insufficient nexus for the school district to act.’”

Brosnan explained that because there is no direct link between the website and the high school, the district couldn’t take disciplinary action. But, he added, “We really hope that parents are monitoring what their children are doing on the Internet … that’s for K- through 12.”

Brosnan said he became aware of the website about two weeks ago, but some staff had heard “rumblings” about Sevs a month ago.

Many students think the Oropallo letter crossed the line, interfering in their lives and impeding their rights.

“In my opinion, Oropallo has a right to be upset by what was said on the website, but it’s out of her jurisdiction only because the site and the forum are anonymous,” said high school student Alex Corrigan. “It could have been posted by… kids who are no longer in high school. It’s out of her control…”

Corrigan added that it was a privately funded, public-access site and he found it “kind of silly even for her to go that far.” He also said some of the more controversial things put on the site were out of the control of the site’s moderator.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. She’s trying to play parent, and control out-of-school things. She has no right to do that,” Betz said in a phone interview Monday night.

Several other student Sevs users who contacted The Record were angered by the administration’s position.

“[Sevs] was a place for high school students to voice their views on many different issues,” wrote Jason Haber. “[While] administrators fear the power of the people and need to keep all their evil doings hush-hush, we talk about happenings in the high school with no boundaries. If you want things to be filtered, you’re violating our freedom. Granted all topics talked about aren’t exactly the best topics, but that’s the beauty of America, eh?”

Haber certainly wasn’t the only one angered by the Oropallo letter, but many students expressed a sense of disappointment that the site was viewed so negatively by the administration.

“Sevs was an outlet for all the angst a teenager may have,” Daniel Lee told The Record. “The language and topics of conversation in the Sevs forums were no different from an average Northport high schooler’s.”

Still, as Lee sees it, the site’s users share the blame. “The Baron (Sevs’ webmaster) gave basically the tools and the space to make a great Northport, small-town website. Instead it became a degenerative bashing ground and inter-threat jamboree. You could actually pick out someone and point fingers while actually making it a permanent part of this web community. To look at its positives, look at how much NHS became a community in the short time Sevs was around. It had incredible possibilities and it is a shame that the site is now defunct.”

Student Rich Ernst also wrote to this newspaper to question the motives and understanding of Oropallo and others who moved against the website.

“I have participated on NorthportSevs from the beginning, and it truly was a great site,” Ernst said.

“The forums were… a place for kids to give their own opinions. Those opinions were many times harsh, violent, absurd, etc. NorthportSevs and its creators weren't the ones projecting the violence, they were merely giving a place for those feelings to be expressed. Those thoughts were coming from kids in our town. What Ms. Oropallo was against, was all the violence, all the hate. Unfortunately, she seems to enjoy the old phrase, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’” Ernst said that eliminating the forums does nothing to eliminate the feelings behind the expressions.

“In short, Sevs was an insight into Northport’s teenage life, and the administrators don't want to come to terms that our lives aren't all sunshine and happy days. Ignorance is not bliss to those that it gets forced on.”

The blunt reality of the site was what disgusted the adults, said student Justin Silverstein. But Silverstein, too, argued that targeting the website did nothing to deal with those realities.

“An open forum for teenagers to spill their dirty little minds… As one might expect, this ruffled the feathers of quite a few authority figures,” he said. “But in their dramatic reactions, many parents and teachers now show a great deal of ignorance. So-called ‘youngsters’ aren’t going to live in a shielded, innocent life, no matter whether they’re exposed to a site like Sevs or not. There’s nothing on Sevs that isn’t said daily in the halls and in the commons…

“There’s really no great harm that can come of the existence of sites like NorthportSevs.com. It’s true that such sites provide a conduit for angry feelings and embarrassing gossip, but you’re not gonna eliminate all that stuff by getting rid of the sites. At best, you’ll reduce it imperceptibly,” he said.

It seemed that at its peak, shortly before the site was closed down (internally, by its webmaster, not by the school district directly) most Northport High School students knew about the site.

The downfall of Sevs, Betz said, was its popularity. Too many people visited, too many talked about it in school. And, perhaps most importantly, people took the anonymous rantings of the posts too seriously, he said.

He personally found out about the site from a friend, and was a frequent visitor and message poster. “I thought it was a good place to vent, honestly, and not really get in much trouble… I made some good friends, people who saw my point of view and agreed.”

Betz said that Sevs was like a giant gossip column, but that putting the rumors and gossip in print may have actually been better than the whispering that goes through the school hallways now. Those whispers, he said, have a tendency to be exaggerated as they’re passed on, he said. “With Sevs, what you see is what you get.”

Or what you saw, anyway…

The Letter

The following letter was sent to high school parents by Northport Principal Theresa Oropallo…

Dear Parent or Guardian:

We have entered the Computer Age and although many things in our lives have been simplified because of that, many things have also become more complicated.

I addressed this issue in a newsletter before but obviously, the problem is still here.

We in the schools have been dealing with the backlash from inappropriate use of the internet and web pages. Students have been getting into verbal arguments or even worse, physical arguments because of statements that have been made on the internet. Students have been embarrassed and maligned. One inappropriate site that has come to our attention is Northport.Sevs.

We are pleading with you the parent to monitor your youngster’s use of the internet. In the school we cannot [access] this site because we have a filter on our computer system. Students, however, can access this from their homes and from what we have been told, students are on this a great deal of the time at home.

Online services, such as America Online, offer customization options that allow parents to restrict the activities of their teenagers online. There is also filtering software, available for the Mac and the PC, that can keep youngsters from accessing sites that show violence, drugs, pornography, and hate…

I fully realize that it must be difficult knowing whether your child is doing homework on the computer or talking to friends; however, as I said at the outset — our lives have become more complicated and we must all find ways to handle that. Please keep your youngster off that site.

Also, please speak to your youngster about the basic premise by which we should all live our lives. It is something, we at school are constantly reminding students of and that is that we have to treat everyone with respect and dignity. We have to always put ourselves in the other person’s place and ask ourselves if that is how we would want to be treated. We cannot be a community, especially not a community like Northport… if we cannot understand and follow that basic concept.

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