SMOB Hana O’looney faces unfair cyberbullying for speaking up


Photo courtesy of MCPSTV Youtube channel

Student Member of the Board Hana O’looney at the Feb. 24 Board of Education meeting. At the meeting, O’looney advocated to keep the mask mandate in schools which caused her to face lots of negativity online.

By Caroline Harless, Photo Manager

The role of the Student Member of the Board (SMOB) comes with engaging in issues prevalent in MCPS: having a say on the Board of Education (BOE) and advocating for the student body. However, when current SMOB Hana O’looney tried to do just that on Feb. 24, she was faced with angry comments from people all over social media.

On Feb. 24, the Montgomery County BOE had a business meeting and the topic of lifting the mask mandate in schools was discussed. Most BOE members were in favor of having masks optional, while SMOB Hana O’looney expressed that she would not want to lift the mask mandate in fear of making students uncomfortable. She argued that science and data should not be the only factor in determining whether or not to lift the mask mandate in schools, but O’loooney’s words got taken out of context in an article on the National Review website and as a result she began facing backlash. However, the situation quickly escalated and backlash turned into cyberbullying as people, mainly adults, flooded O’looney’s Twitter account with malicious comments.  

“What essentially happened is that one group fed the story of what Hana said to the National Review,” WCHS teacher Tiffany Carmi said. “They did not state in the National Review article that it was a student so the headline was along the lines of ‘Maryland Board of Education member says disregard data, let fear and anxiety take over.’ This group took her words out of context and did not include that Hana was a student, which resulted in people unknowingly making threats to an 18-year-old.”

As of Mar. 7, the article is still up on the National Review website, despite including false information and taking what O’looney said out of context. Comments under the article include, “Hana O’Looney? Seriously? Perfect name from a person with an absurd premise” and “Has she ever spent seven hours, five days a week wearing a mask? If she did she would not be talking about mask comfort.” Criticism is expected with a position like O’looney’s, but the criticism went too far when the comments turned to making fun of O’looney’s last name. 

“The problem with the internet is that people can say whatever they want, and when you have such a divisive topic you’re going to get a lot of negative [responses],” Carmi said. “I know people have their opinions but then making comments about Hana’s last name is not, in my opinion, an appropriate response or something that needs to even be said. Like you can disagree but why do we have to add hurtful and rude comments?”

This situation also brings up the issue of how social media plays a part in cyberbullying. O’looney’s Twitter account was deactivated for a few days following all of the negativity surrounding her platform. Not only did people leave comments expressing their unhappiness with O’looney’s stance on lifting the mask mandate, but they also began to make threats and insensitive comments towards O’looney as a person. 

“I think Hana was right to deactivate her Twitter and remove herself from the situation,” WCHS sophomore Alvia Naqvi said. “Most of those people write messages to simply inflict fear, but they won’t actually do anything. It can be scary how people are so bold behind screens, which gives them a false sense of power with being able to hide their true identity.”

Issues were raised when it came to figuring out who is behind the targeted comments. Because people are not required to put their real name when making an online presence, it can be impossible to tell who the comment is coming from. And while most of the backlash has been from adults in favor of lifting the mask mandate, the anonymity of social media still proves to be a problem. 

“I think it’s very easy for people to say things online and not have to deal with the consequences because it doesn’t affect them right now,” Carmi said. “People don’t understand the impact of their words, especially when they are able to comment under false names. It could be someone in a prominent position in the county that’s making comments under an anonymous thread and no one would ever know.”

In response to the attack on O’looney, Montgomery County BOE President Brenda Wolff spoke out in saying that she was “appalled” at the abuse towards O’looney. Wolff mentions how personal attacks have been made on members of the board in the past, but this is the first time that it happened to a student. However, many feel that the president simply addressing the situation was not enough. 

“I feel like MCPS didn’t do enough to protect Hana. The situation was not handled appropriately and more needs to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen to future SMOBs,” Naqvi said. “People are treating Hana like a political figure compared to who she really is, which is a highschool student.”

As much as MCPS advocates for anti-bullying through interactive lessons for students, it’s clear that more can be done. Many students do not take the anti-bullying lessons seriously, even though it is a very important and serious topic. Preventing a situation like this from happening again involves more educating so that students can fully understand how to recognize cyberbullying, be able to help the victim, and not play a role in saying hateful things. 

“I think this situation is a call to action for MCPS to do more about bullying,” Naqvi said. “MCPS talks a lot about how not to bully and what to do if you’re a victim, but in the end there’s a lot more emphasis on stopping the situation after it’s occurred instead of preventing the issue. I feel like right now it’s more focused on getting the bully to stop compared to helping the victim, which needs to change.”

As the heat towards O’looney dies down, people moving on to debate over the next issue, it’s important to remember why the position of SMOB was created: for the students to have a voice. 

“In her statement, Hana was trying to advocate for the student body that she is representing and what impact lifting the mask mandate would have on students,” Carmi said. “SMOB was created to give students a voice and Hana did just that when communicating her opinions. Now, it’s a matter of making sure students are able to express themselves without being attacked online so situations like this don’t happen again.”