Articles on Professional Development

Kid Connections

Ballad of an EMail Terrorist (c)

1995 Al Rogers

What do you do when your fourth grade student receives an obscene email message?

This lengthy message describes a recent real problem and how we managed it.

It's purpose is to:

  • give you practical strategies for coping with this kind of problem.

  • Give you a real-life story to share with your students as an object lesson in what can happen if they send inconsiderate, rude, insolent, or vulgar messages to the wrong person. Some of your students may think that the arcane internet domain name email address allows them to be anonymous. This story demonstrates that this isn't always true. It's also a pointed reminder that they (and you) should always protect their email logins so that unknown persons can't use their account for nefarious purposes.

You may want to print it out and pass it around among your students and faculty.

The tale is told through this exchange of email messages.

The story began a few weeks ago when I received this complaint:

(Note: All names, locations, email addresses, and domains have been altered to protect both the innocent and the guilty. My running commentary is interspersed throughout.)

    >Date: Wed, 10 May 95 15:21 est
    >Subject: Obscene mail to a 4th grader
    >One of my teachers sent out some kind of request for
    >information about Disney. One of her students wrote the
    >message, identifying himself as a fourth grade student in
    >Elsewhere, NJ.  Luckily, the teacher came in early the next
    >day and read the answers before the students arrived. One
    >answer was extremely upsetting to her since it ws written
    >to a child. It came from the following address:
    >The message was fully spelled out, I will use ***, and it
    >read as follows:    "**** you, little ****!!!!!!!"
    >This is the first problem I've had and I don't know how to
    >address the situation. She wondered why the message wasn't
    >screened, I tried to explain that anyone can answer email
    >and no one sees it before the recipient dials in, so I
    >would like your recommendation on what to do. Thanks very
    >Joan Smith

This site subscribes to our Global SCHLnet Newsgroup Service which includes over 20 (out of 73) newsgroups for students. We read all messages posted to these student newsgroups so we can be aware of cyber vandals and take steps to deal with them. However, this particular attack came via email, and the teacher wondered how it "slipped through." I had to explain that we don't have access to private mail:

     >From: (Al Rogers)
     >Date:  Wed, 17 May 95 15:21 pdt
     >Subject: Re: Obscene mail to a 3rd grader
    >Unfortunately, there is no way in the world to prevent
    >private email like this from going through. Although we
    >do read all student newsgroup mail, we don't screen
    >messages before they are posted. Our presence on each
    >newsgroup is our primary incentive for good
    >behavior, but we are in fact subject to terrorist
    >In the case of newsgroup postings, we so far have succeeded
    >in removing email accounts for all students (only two
    >this year) who have been offenders, which means that
    >problems are transient and not chronic.
    >In the case of email problems, however, you need to deal
    >with this yourself on a more individual basis.
    >I would treat it much like I would treat a child who has
    >been insulted on the playground or to/from school in this
    >manner (which is not all that unusual in most places.) In
    >other words, you counsel the child and try and deal with
    >the offender.
    >1. I'd counsel ALL children about the possibility of this
    >   kind of message, so that they are not caught off-guard.
    >   They should know that they should immediately report this
    >   kind of message to the teacher, who should print out the
    >   message right away and then forward the msg to a safe
    >   location for future reference, if needed.
    >2. I'd be sure that all parents understood that this is a
    >   risk, but that we don't sanction this behavior and we
    >   attempt to prepare students to deal effectively with this.
    >3. I would write a message to both the offending email
    >   address, with Cc:'s to and
    > complaining about this kind of
    >   behavior, with lots of language about how the poor little
    >   student was traumatized.
    >4. I would follow up with another message to
    > and
    >   asking about the policies for acceptable use on their
    >   system and asking if abusive, offensive behavior directed
    >   at a 4th grader was acceptable. (most systems have a
    >   POSTMASTER and/or ROOT address that permits you to reach
    >   someone who is in charge.)
    >5. I'd also request from ROOT and POSTMASTER the name,
    >   phone number, and email address  of the director of the
    >   department or division in charge of the internet domain
    >   ("" in this case) and correspond directly
    >   with that person.
    >I know that this kind of attack is unsettling, but it is
    >one of the unavoidable risks that we all face.

This advice in items 3 and 4 is based on the fact that most Internet providers are basically good-neighbor types. The time and expense of keeping a system running, as well as the peer-pressure of the Internet community, means that most system administrators take seriously the question of misbehavior of their users, especially when it comes to illegal and unethical behavior. This would be of special concern if a child is somehow being victimized.

Item 5 explicity requests the name and phone number of a person in responsible authority over the system.

The major problem with using the addresses "POSTMASTER" and "ROOT" is that these mailboxes may not be checked all that often by the system administrator. In this saga, we got no responses from those addresses, so we had to dig a little deeper.

The teacher did send a message to the offending mailbox, with a warning that his action would be reported. The plot thickened when I received the following message from the sysop, who is the school librarian and who is struggling to get and maintain interest among the skeptical staff:

    >Date: Tue, 23 May 95 17:20 est
    >Subject: Re: obscene email
    >Al...This is the current message from the obscene sender
    >we've been having trouble with. The teacher wrote to tell
    >him/her that she was reporting the incident and this is the
    >We have notified the sysop (or tried to) but have not yet
    >received a response. If you have time to also message the
    >sysop of this site, we would greatly appreciate it.
    >The teacher is very careful to preview the mail before the
    >kids come in now, but it is still disheartening. Sort of
    >takes the fun out of it, if you know what I mean.
    >Joan Smith
    >--Message below forwarded by 
      >>Date: Mon, 22 May 95 20:22 est
      >>To: wsmith
      >>Subject: Re: Re: Disney help
      >>I'm forwarding the latest installment from our obscene
      >>sender.  I'm sorry but this really infuriates me because it
      >>was originally sent to a student.  Isn't there anything
      >>that can be done.  He is replying to my message that said I
      >>was reporting him to his Sysop.
      >>Please let me know what's up.
      >>--Message below forwarded by 
        >>>Date: 16 May 1995 20:41:39 EDT
        >>>Subject: Re: Re: Disney help
        >>>Hey ! Do you think i'm care , you stupid mother ******* *****!

      >>Susan Jones
    >Joan Smith

Well, this adds insult to injury and shows a total lack of regard for any of the normal and common standards of courtesty and respect and..... well, you get the picture. We must combat this kind of uncivilized behavior, and take whatever steps we can to educate users in common courtesy, as well as hold them accountable for their actions. Consequently, I decided that this bandit must be confronted directly.... which means through his system administrators, who hold the keys to his Internet access.

Since our two besieged teachers hadn't gotten any reply from the POSTMASTER and ROOT addresses, I thought it was time to accelerate our search for the responsible people running our boorish correspondent's home system.

For good measure, I sent my own message to ""

    >>From: (Al Rogers)
    >>Subject: Re: obscene email
    >>You have a user who is sending obscene mail
    >>to young 4th grade children (7-8 years of age) at a school
    >>in New Jersey.
    >>Needless to say, this has the entire faculty at this school
    >>very upset.
    >>Any effort to appeal to normal human decency of this user has resulted
    >>in the reply shown below.
    >>Given the young age of the children involved, we would like to request
    >>that you take steps to restrict the ability of this user to send
    >>this kind of message. This incident goes beyond any legitimate
    >>right of freedom of speech, and at the very least is a violation
    >>of normal standards of decency and respect.
    >>Please send me the name and phone number of the director of your
    >>department so that I may discuss this problem with him or her.
    >>I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.
    >>Thank you.
    >>>Date: 16 May 1995 20:41:39 EDT
    >>>Subject: Re: Re: Disney help
    >>>Hey ! Do you think i'm care , you stupid mother ******* *****!

Notice that I've Cc:'d our bandit KITCHEN on all messages, so that he'll see our efforts to close in on him.

Because it is not uncommon for "postmaster" and "root" to be flaky addresses, I decided that the best way to get to the "top" was to go right to the top of the domain. The bandit's email address was at "" Reading from right to left, I knew that this message was from CAnada, province of ONtario. The next field represents the top-level domain, which is "". "Unity" would be a mail server somewhere in the "" domain. If I could find the administrators responsible for domain "", I would be in.

Fortunately, the Internic maintains an Internet-wide "whois" registry of users on the Internet. Whenever a new domain is registered on the Internet, it is automatically entered on the Internic's "whois" database. The entry for that domain will include the name, address, and phone number of the administrative contact.

Consequently, I set my Netscape browser to [remote]

I scrolled down the netscape screen to "Information Services" and selected the entry for "whois searches"

At the gopher search window I entered "abc" and pressed return. In a few moments, it returned 46 entries containing the phrase "abc".

One of those lines contained this information:

Chelsey, Bob (BC777) Unity College

The domain was not quite the "" that I was looking for, but it was close, and it also include the phrase "Unity College." I was looking for "". It seemed to be reasonably congruent, and besides... it was the only contender.

When I clicked on that line on my Netscape window, it brought up this more complete entry:

Chelsey, Bob (BC777)   
   Unity College
   999 Scenic View Street
   Utopia, Ontario; A9Z 1X9
   CA, CA
   +1 (999) 999-9999

Now I thought we were getting someplace.

I immediately dialed the phone number. When the caller answered, I asked if Bob Chelsey was the system administrator of "". I hit pay-dirt right away, as I was talking to his co-system administrator. It turns out that "Unity College" is a boarding high school near Toronto; they are new to the Internet, and both students and teachers are learning the Internet ropes. So it turns out that KITCHEN is a newbie! It figures.

I briefly outlined the problem we'd been having with one of their users, and he pledged full cooperation in bringing the miscreant to justice.

My first message was to re-send what I had already sent to postmaster:

    >>From: (Al Rogers)
    >>Subject: Re: obscene email
    >>Here is the message that I sent off last night to
    >>Thanks for looking into this.
    >>As an educator myself, I would like to recommend that you
    >>require this cherub to write an apology to the4th grade
    >>teacher (, and I'd also
    >>appreciate a Cc: to myself.
    >>Brainstorm: as a learning experience for your student body,
    >>what about inviting the teacher in New Jersey to write to
    >>your student's class, describing from their side the human
    >>dimensions of this kind of behavior, and trying to put a
    >>face on this "anonymous" medium.
    >>Ahh... it's a never ending battle to civilize 'em, isn't it
    >>Here's the message I sent last night.
  ----- SNIP----

I also sent to Mr. Chelsey the other messages that I had already received from our concerned teachers.

Along about this time, our cherub KITCHEN, noticing my email traffic is getting closer and closer to home, began to realize that the "jig is up". Here's his first message:

    >>Date: 24 May 1995 21:01:01 EDT
    >>Subject: Re: Re: obscene email
    >>I'm really sorry , what i send to the student of your school !
    >>I promise it will never happen again . So , please , if you can ,
    >>take my appoligies!

Does this sound like a change of heart????

This was my reply to him (at this time, I didn't know whether KITCHEN was a male or female):

    >>From: (Al Rogers)
    >>Subject: Re: Re: obscene email
    >>>I'm really sorry , what i send to the student of your
    >>>school! I promise it will never happen again . So ,
    >>>please , if you can , take my appoligies!
    >>Mr. or Ms. KITCHEN:
    >>I am not the person to whom you should be apologizing.
    >>The teacher you need to discuss this with is Ms. Susan Jones,
    >>She was very upset at your offensive, obscene insults
    >>directed both at her and her young children.
    >>Ms. Jones was trying to make education fun for her young
    >>and impressionable children by using Internet connections
    >>to the world. Your cruel and destructive messages to her
    >>and her children have very much upset not only her but
    >>parents of her children and other teachers.
    >>Single handedly, your actions have caused teachers at that
    >>school to begin discussing the possibility that maybe the
    >>Internet is not a safe place to hang around.
    >>At a time when education needs all the help it can get, you
    >>may have succeeded in setting that school back several
    >>A simple apology from you may not be adequate to correct
    >>the damage that you have done.
    >>I recommend that you make another effort to send an apology
    >>to Ms. Jones. This time, use a dictionary or spell
    >>checker. Your spelling is terrible.
    >>Suggestions for an effective apology:
    >>-Tell Ms. Jones a little about yourself and about
    >>  Unity College.
    >>-Review what your actions were, and why they were
    >>  irresponsible. I'm sure she's curious, as I am, why you
    >>  behaved as you did. If you can, maybe you can tell her
    >>  why you did that.
    >>-Tell her what you learned from this experience.
    >>-Tell her how this experience will help you to be a better
    >>  citizen in the future.
    >>Her email address is
    >>By the way... I would appreciate it if you include me as a Cc:
    >>on your message to Ms. Jones.
    >>There is an important lesson for you in this experience.
    >>In the end, if you do succeed in becoming a more responsible
    >>and effective citizen, you will be able to look at this
    >>experience and smile.... and we all will smile along with you.
    >>So pay attention, and learn this lesson well!!!

I also sent to our newly penitent correspondent the messages of distress I had received from our system in Elsewhere, New Jersey, so that he would begin to see the human dimension of his actions.

In the meantime, the sysop at Elsewhere wrote this message to the system administrator at

    >>Date: Sun, 28 May 95 14:14 est
    >>Subject: email problem
    >>Mr. Chelsey:
    >>My name is Joan Smith; I am the Educational Media
    >>Specialist (librarian) at ZZZZ Elementary School in
    >>Elsewhere, New Jersey, USA. I am the sysop of the
    >>bulletin board used by Sue Jones and her elementary
    >>students who received the obscene messages from Mr. Kitchen.
    >>Al Rogers forwarded copies of his correspondence to you and
    >>your replies.
    >>First, I do want to thank you for helping us solve this
    >>problem so it does not continue. The original message from
    >>the third grader was a request he sent out for information
    >>about Walt Disney. They had been reading about him in
    >>class. Happily, they did receive several wonderful answers
    >>to the question.
    >>But the obscene mail from KITCHEN really put a damper on the
    >>whole experience. I was really afraid Ms. Jones was
    >>going to stop the whole project after she had just gotten
    >>Elsewhere is a fairly large city, we have 19,000+ students in
    >>nearly 30 schools. My own building has 1100 students K-6th
    >>grade. Ms. Jones's school is a bit smaller.
    >>We have a lot of technology available, but are just
    >>beginning to use telecommunications. I am a self-proclaimed
    >>evangelist, trying to inspire teachers to use this new
    >>medium. I see so many positive experiences happening all
    >>around the country and I so want our students to be a part
    >>of this information superhighway. Doing it through the
    >>school is the only way most of them will ever get this
    >>chance. Elsewhere is a poor city and our
    >>students simply do not have computers at home.
    >>I really hope some of your students will contact Ms.
    >>Jones with some positive feedback. It would be a golden
    >>opportunity for them to learn something about Canada and
    >>the people who live there, and for yours to realize that
    >>messages they send on the internet go to real people who
    >>have names and faces...and feelings which can be hurt with
    >>cruel words. Thank you again for your assistance.
    >>Joan Smith, Sysop
    >>Joan Smith

"Real people who have names and faces... and feelings which can be hurt with cruel words."

Nice point!

FInally, just a few days ago, I received this message from

    >>Date: 26 May 1995 14:26:26 EDT
    >>Subject: about the abc student and the obscene email
    >>I printed out your e-mail to me and past it along to the
    >>Assistant Headmaster who is in charge of discipline. I had
    >>a talk (more like chewed out) with Kitche Nikorian and so
    >>did the Assistant Head (she really had it out with him). As
    >>a result he as been suspended from school for one week, his
    >>parents are being notified, and he must e-mail a proper
    >>apology back to the class. Also, as a result of this
    >>suspension he may not be allowed back into the school next
    >>year (it will be reviewed at the end of the year). Being
    >>suspended for a week is a big deal at a boarding school
    >>since parents have to arrange for the student to get back
    >>home (He is from Russia!).
    >>I hope this will in someway repair some of the damage done.
    >>Students at our school have been made aware of this
    >>incident and I am sure that they do not regard the Internet
    >>as a toy anymore.
    >>Please let me know how you feel about how we have handled
    >>Bob Chelsey

"Students at our school have been made aware of this incident, and I am sure that they do not regard the Internet as a toy anymore."

Here is my reply to this message:

    >>From: (Al Rogers)
    >>Subject: Re: about the abc student and the obscene email
    >>Mr. Chelsey:
    >>Thank you so much for your prompt response to this problem.
    >>For all of us, this is a big learning experience... more so
    >>for some than for others.  My goal is to hope that students
    >>in all quarters will learn from this experience.
    >>I suspect that the rest of your students will learn the lesson
    >>"big time" when they see what happened to Kitche.
    >>Golly... yes, this is pretty severe. Of course, it is my hope
    >>that Kitche will be able to learn an important lesson here,
    >>but I also hope that he will be able to survive the lesson.

Some readers may believe that KITCHEN's penalty was too severe. Others may think it is appropriate. However, that is not the point of this saga.

The point of this saga is to

  • illustrate specific techniques for tracking down cyber-terrorists and confront them with the consequences of their action
  • Give you some dramatic grist to use with your students to show them that they can't hide behind their perceived anonymity of their email address.

Later that day, I received Kitche's long-awaited apology:

    >>Date: 26 May 1995 15:41:36 EDT
    >>Subject: re: obscene mail
    >>Dear Ms. Jones!
    >>My name is Kitche Nikorian and it's my first year as a
    >>boarding student from Russia at Unity High School.
    >>Unity is a wonderful high school with solid traditions
    >>and a good, strong educational system.
    >>Now, I would like to explain why I sent you and one of your
    >>students such rude messages and why my actions were so
    >>irresponsible. This is my first year working with
    >>computers. At the beginning of the year I didn't like
    >>computers at all. But then I started to enjoy this course.
    >>When our school got this new program that is internet, I
    >>didn't realize how responsible I should be, while using
    >>this program. So I began fooling around with the "Chat"
    >>program and when the "Chat" program was no longer
    >>available, I discovered the "News" section. So I tried it.
    >>While I was in the "Chat" programme I received a lot of
    >>rude messages. So, I thought it was some kind of a game. I
    >>also, didn't know that Internet contain educational values.
    >>So, I guess these are my reasons, why I sent that messages.
    >>I certainly learnt an important lesson in this experience.
    >>I realized how much power computers have and that they are
    >>not the kind of staff to play around with. I also learnt
    >>that I have to respect my power while using computers.
    >>Once again, I apologize for my actions!
    >>Kitche Nikorian

My own personal philosophy of effective discipline is to rehabilitate through restitution and instruction.

Kitche's message to Ms. Jones is the first step in trying to "restore" what was stolen... in this case, faith and trust in the network. If Kitche and Ms. Jones can have a civil, friendly dialog, perhaps this objective can accomplished.

The other part... instruction... well, I'm a teacher, and so I put on my teacherly hat and gave him some advice. You may find it useful for your own students.

    >>Date: 31 May 1995 15:51:06 EDT
    >>From: (Al Rogers)
    >>Subject: re: obscene mail

    >>Mr. Nikorian:
    >>I thank you for your message.  You did a very nice job of
    >>explaining yourself, and I applaud your efforts to
    >>improve your expression.
    >>Your point about this being "some kind of game" was well
    >>taken. I understand how you may have misunderstood your
    >>responsibilities. Of course, that doesn't "let you off the
    >>hook" for the damage your actions caused in that 4th grade
    >>As you have learned, the Internet is full of real people who
    >>are trying to do real work, and you must respect them and
    >>their efforts. In fact, the Internet is primarily a work
    >>and learning environment. So it is really important to know
    >>know when courtesy and respect are required
    >>Here is some advice:
    >>Remember that it is a major breach of etiquette to post
    >>something on a list or newsgroup that is off-topic or
    >>inappropriate. How can you tell what is inappropriate?  The
    >>only way you can do that is to spend some time "lurking" on
    >>the group to see who hangs out there, and what kinds of
    >>things they talk about. (Lurking is when you read messages,
    >>but you don't post anything.)
    >>Lurk on the group for several days, READING the
    >>postings from other people.  Also, try and find the list
    >>FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions.)  The FAQ tells you about
    >>the purposes of a list, who it's for, and what kinds of
    >>things are discussed. It also usually contains lots of
    >>basic information that people need to know about the topics
    >>under discussion.
    >>With this information, you'll know what the "rules of the
    >>game" are, and you may be able to avoid embarassing
    >>yourself with a thoughtless or inappropriate posting.
    >>Use the behavior of other members of the group as
    >>guidelines for your own behavior.
    >>What to do about certain kinds of groups:
    >> -- Stay completely away from groups for teachers.
    >> -- Many student groups are under the supervision of
    >>    teachers or some other responsible authority. ALWAYS be
    >>    polite and courteous in these groups.
    >> -- You can join general groups for adults, but only if you
    >>    pretend to be a mature, responsible grown-up.
    >>Check your school's policy to find out what kinds of adult
    >>topics are "off-limits" to you. Just because you can find
    >>an "adult" topic doesn't mean you can use school resources
    >>and time to access that topic. You should always know what
    >>your responsibilities are.
    >>I suspect you have learned many things from this experience.
    >>I hope it will make you a better Internet citizen.
    >>I wish you good luck as you pick up these pieces and move on.
    >>And I hope you will be able to attend Unity school next year.

I finally received this gratifying message from Mrs. Jones. With a little bit of luck, the Internet will take on a human face for everybody concerned.

    >>Date: Thu,  1 Jun 95 08:25 est
    >>Subject: Re: re:obscene mail
    >>Dear Mr. Nikorian,
    >>On behalf of my fourth grade class, and in particular Pat who
    >>posted the question on Disney,  I accept your apology.  I hope
    >>that you have learned a valuable lesson about courtesy and the
    >>responsible use of the Internet.  It is important to always
    >>remember that on the other end of your computer screen are real
    >>people with feelings.  I'm sure that if you had met me or my
    >>class face to face that you would never even consider using the
    >>kind of language that you sent over the Internet.
    >>We all make mistakes in life and it is my ferverent hope that
    >>you have learned from this mistake and that you will not be
    >>"turned against" computers or the use of the Internet.
    >>Cyberspace is a fascinating place.
    >>I hope that you will continue to correspond with my class and
    >>me.  My students could learn so much about your country by
    >>"talking" to you. Please let me know how you are doing.  I
    >>really want to hear from you.
    >>Wishing you well,
    >>Mrs. Susan Jones

Al Rogers                                  Global SchoolNet Foundation
Executive Director  ----------------------