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Fairfax County cyber-bullying story picks up traction — but will transparency & action follow?

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Based on the recent history of the Fairfax County government, it seems to be a good sign that Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Chief Richard Bowers is following up on his initial public statement Saturday about cyber-bullying and the suicide of one of his firefighters. Chief Bowers provided some more details in his on-camera statement today (Monday) about Nicole Mittendorff’s death. (UPDATE: According to WUSA-TV reporter Peggy Fox, Chief Bowers would not answer any questions from reporters, which is not a good sign) Here’s the latest from WJLA-TV/ABC 7 reporter Jeff Goldberg:

Chief Bowers says the Virginia State Police investigation into this case will reveal many facts of this case, likely including any potential examples of bullying.

Online message boards dating back to last December reveal posts in which Mittendorff’s name was used in a negative manner, some of the posts purported to have been written by members of the Fairfax County Fire Department, none of whom gave his or her name.

Chief Bowers says he is taking this investigation very seriously, “If there is any nexus with any type of bullying-which I have zero tolerance for-in a physical nature, of bullying itself; or in the written nature; or the verbal nature of bullying, if you will-I will address that and eradicate that completely, if in fact it involves any members of our department”.

VA Fairfax County Bowers

The story is getting a lot of attention nationally and internationally, both within the fire service and from mainstream news organizations. Yesterday, Billy Goldfeder posted a column “So … how’s your daughter?” and Eric Lamar wrote “Of Sex and Suicide: Fairfax Couplings”. Today, Washington Post veteran reporter turned columnist Petula Dvorak wrote, “Was a Va. firefighter humiliated by co-workers online before she killed herself?”

What is being reported, and is very obvious when you look at the website in question –Fairfax Underground — is this problem is far from new. It is also not unique to Fairfax County, Virginia or to this one site. There are comments about Mittendorff and other firefighters that go back months and years. Nina Golgowski at Huffington Post brings up a topic that I’m sure is on the mind of anyone who has followed this story:

What is not clear is how long the fire department knew of the posts and how they were handled, if at all.

Here’s hoping that Fairfax County will provide answers in a rapid and transparent manner explaining what they knew (if anything), when they knew it and what was done about it.

Such candor has not been the forte of the Fairfax County government. Fairfax is coming off more than two years of humiliating publicity surrounding a cover-up at the highest levels of the county government following a bad police shooting. In that case, the priority was on protecting the county’s potential liability and not on sharing the truth, or even worrying about the police department’s image.

Full disclosure: I am a resident of Fairfax County and was a member of a commission formed to assist Fairfax County officials in addressing these issues. Specifically, I  was part of a group that wrote the report dealing with communications, public information and transparency.

The image of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department and the fire service in general is very much at stake with this case. Already, people on social media are claiming Fairfax County isn’t doing the right thing. That’s standard for everything these days, even when an organization takes all the correct actions. But a delay in effectively addressing this — in a manner that shows a bias toward openness — has the potential for making a terrible and tragic situation much worse. Fairfax County should try strive to answer many questions about the cyber-bullying allegations before they’re even asked by reporters.

One obvious question being asked by many is what is being done about the people who posted these comments about Nicole Mittendorff and others?

Cary Wiedemann, who runs Fairfax Underground, is no stranger to these controversies (read stories here, here & here). Wiedemann told Huffington Post that information about the “anonymous posters” can be supplied to law enforcement armed with a court order:

“I have and will continue to retain all IP addresses of Fairfax Underground posters indefinitely in case any court wishes to unmask the perpetrators of this abuse,” Wiedemann said in an email to The Huffington Post on Monday.

According to the website’s rules, which are posted on its welcome page, any spam, unrelated posts, personal attacks and impersonations are subject to removal.

Wiedemann said that moderators do not actively seek out inappropriate content. Instead, they rely on users to report misconduct with a “Report Abuse” link that appears under every post for registered users.

“I still have yet to receive a single abuse report regarding the thread in question,” Wiedemann said.

I imagine there are a lot of people who posted these ugly comments on Fairfax Underground (and possibly elsewhere) who are now sweating quite a bit. It remains to be seen if perspiration and guilt are the only problems these folks will face or, if they actually will, or even can be, held accountable for what they wrote. The latest comments from Chief Bowers indicate that bullying is very much on the table in the police investigation.

While they are waiting for the police probe, Fairfax County needs to continue to provide the leadership in the accountability department. Chief Bowers and company must answer the obvious questions about actions at all levels of the department and to clearly explain the process at crucial points in the coming days and weeks. It’s not encouraging that, in the story below, reporter Peggy Fox says the chief refused to answer questions from reporters. The chief needs to make sure that a lack of transparency doesn’t again become the story in Fairfax County.

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