"We have our little coffee circle in the morning, and it is talked about every day," says Hoek, who last year had Bichao in the journalism class that produced the official school newspaper, The Hiller. "I don't think there's been a time that we've had a conversation where Sergio's name doesn't come up at least once, sometimes in an extremely positive fashion, sometimes not."
Just then, Drama teacher Peter Henning ducked his head into the empty classroom.
"I just got attacked by two people who read DaHiller!" says Henning, who has just come from the teacher's lounge. "They feel that he was out of line with his attack on Ms. Colangelo and Mr. Nelson. ... They said, 'Why would [you] be interested in this?' And I said, 'Raise your hand if you've read DaHiller in the last three days' -- and everybody raised their hand!"
After five more minutes of Hoek deconstructing Sergio (sample: "As a 36-year-old former journalist wanna-be, I sat there and I said 'Damn, I was nowhere near where he is now on my best day."), Hillside Principal Dr. Milton James burst through the door and stopped the conversation cold.
"What is going on here?!" James demanded, voice quavering. Hoek responded, very quietly: "This, ah, gentleman, is inter-viewing people, ah, about DaHiller ..."
"This interview is OVER! It's GOT to be approved by the principal and the superintendent. This interview is OVER! Anything you have shouldn't be in print, because it wasn't approved!"
As security guards escorted the intruding reporter off school grounds, the principal's voice boomed down the 75-year-old hallways. "I am REALLY upset about this! REALLY upset!"
So upset, in fact, that Bichao and his Portuegese-born parents were called in for a conference five days later with Dr. James, Sergio's guidance counselor, and three of the teachers who have been criticized harshly on DaHiller.
"It was right b4 the weekend -- three days spent biting my nails and pulling out my hair. I thought they were going to try to expel me or something," Sergio explained later by e-mail. "My parents were really really upset. My father threatened to take away the computer and Internet and told me to stop the site."
But this is a kid who, in Henning's words, is "fearless," "completely unintimidatable," and "has the chutzpah -- as opposed to a different word -- of a cat burgler." Sure enough, soon after the meeting, Bichao belted out a defiant new "Mission Statement":
"These beasts have never before had to deal with the blinding, ugly light of truth mirrored by a little underground website," he thundered. "They've tried to have me punished; they've tried to have me take it down under my own accords and then brought in my parents when that did not work. But lo and behold, here we are!"
RAND, MURDOCH, AND DRUDGE
Right now, all across the United States, there are high-school and middle-school students in their bedrooms, designing animated gifs of their teachers having sex with Homer Simpson, posting "People2Kill" lists of classmates, and -- more commonly -- writing milder slags against their schools somewhere on the Internet. Ten years ago, such "content" would have mostly been limited to secret notes or private sketchbooks, which were not exactly searchable by a global audience.
In the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre, which was foreshadowed by the killers publishing violent threats and bomb-building instructions on a Web site, and incidents like the March 5 fatal shooting in Santee, California, which came after repeated warnings by Charles Andrew Williams that were treated as a "joke," jittery teachers and school boards have been quick to punish students who publish or contribute to Web sites that seem in any way threatening.
Since Columbine, scores of teen publishers have been suspended, expelled and even jailed; dozens have become embroiled in lawsuits with the schools or teachers they insulted. (See related story: Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety.)
Now the phenomenon has come to Hillside, a pleasant 2.7-square-mile city of 21,000 people, crammed between Newark, Elizabeth and Union, in shoulder-to-shoulder, two-story single-family houses. It is a town known mostly as the home of Yankee Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto, and as the final resting place for writer Stephen Crane, but now a first-generation son of a plastics factory employee and a domestic worker is making his own run at local legend.
What makes Sergio Bichao different than your average controversial teenage Web publisher is that he's also the student body president, editor of the school paper, stage manager in the Drama Club and an excellent student. He's a bit on the short side, but you can't imagine anyone successfully picking on a person with his self-assurance and brutal wit.
"He's involved, he's not just on the outside trashing everything," Henning said. "Of 10 years teaching he's one of five students where I just looked at him in eighth grade, and said 'This kid has got something, he's gonna go places.' I don't know where exactly, I don't think he'll go to jail, but he's gonna make a mark in some way."
Bichao says he wanted to be TV reporter as early as first grade, but got serious about it in middle school, when he was editor of the quarterly student newspaper. "I had a commentary thing. ... I was crying about stuff on animal rights and the environment."
Henning, who taught at the middle school before transferring to Hillside, had Bichao for eighth grade English. "The first thing I noticed was that when they had some free time and he took out a book, he was reading the autobiography of Hugh Downs. And I thought, 'OK, I've got a strange one on my hands,'" he said.
Henning introduced Bichao to the writings of Ayn Rand, and soon the young bleeding-heart columnist gave way to an unsentimental Objectivist-type who has little patience for the "socialist" leanings of his European parents. "He got Libertarian on us," said the Drama teacher, who cut his own political teeth protesting Richard Nixon.
At Hillside, Bichao quickly dominated The Hiller, the student paper that in older, better-funded days, had been published monthly on newsprint. "Sergio is one of those rare students who came in here with an ability that wasn't learned here," Hoek said. "That passion was not taught."
The two sparred over issues of style and substance, and in the process Bichao developed a serious tabloid newspaper habit.
"My teacher was ... comparing the [New York] Post to the Times, saying that the Times was better, and that we should all try to write like the New York Times. And I said 'You know, why?'" Bichao said. "And I went out, got a Post, and I actually liked it better."
Without a computer, printer, or significant budget, The Hiller was limited to two 12-page issues, with "most of the articles written by Sergio," Hoek said. It wasn't enough.
"Every week I had an article, and I'd give it to my journalism teacher. Finally after about four months you had a paper, and then I'd look, and like half my articles are not in there," he said. "He didn't like stretching the envelope. He thought that the principal would have problems with putting negative things in there. But I felt that we had to ... because there wasn't that much positive stuff to write about at our high school. ... And the only way that we can improve it is if we expose what was wrong."
Hoek said The Hiller did publish controversial articles -- about the Taliban, for example -- but decorum and limited space dictated that not every Sergio piece be run.
"Even when we know that certain things are to be true, we don't necessarily want to broadcast them, because we are dealing with human emotions," Hoek said. "There were certain articles that you'd say, 'Well, this is inappropriate,' or 'This isn't necessarily correct.' ... There were just certain things within good taste that I thought should be kept out."
So one night last May, Bichao got behind the keyboard of his new computer, and created an outlet for his excess. But rather than expose painful truths, or right wrongs, DaHiller.com's first couple of stories were tittery, half-grammatical kiss-and-tells about Drama Club parties.
There were "a lot of gossipy things in there," Bichao says now. "But after that I realized that I could be more serious, I could actually use it for some good."
He also realized that instead of wrestling with Microsoft design software, why not just crib the source code from his hero, Matt Drudge? Readers of The Drudge Report will immediately recognize DaHiller's low-tech sirens heralding breaking stories, breathless line-breaks like "IMPACTING," three-column, black-on-white list of links to news outlets and columnists, and even a little "Visits to DaHiller" box. It is a more faithful reproduction of Drudge's design than parody-sites like The Drudge Retort, Grudge Report, Mudge Report, Putz Report and Smudge Report.
"I started listening to his radio show first, then I just checked his Web site," Bichao recalled. "I became addicted the first time."
Ask him what he admires about Drudge -- whose "Manifesto" Bichao devoured in two days -- and the teen's machine-gun-burst speech slows to quiet declarative reverence.
"Well, (long pause) he just tells you everything. I like to know things. And it just has everything. All the news. He's not afraid to report anything, he has guts, he doesn't let people push him around. He's like a one-man gang, he's all by himself, he goes against armies of corporations, media empires. He's one guy, and he can do all that."
Just before the end of the school year, Bichao came up with his first Drudge-style "scoop" -- that students were being secretly videotaped off-campus by Hillside police.
By then, DaHiller was an open secret among the Drama geeks, a handful of teachers, whoever was on Bichao's e-mail list, and a small but growing segment of Hillside's 1,300 students. "Everybody thought about it over the summer," said Bichao's friend Fauziyah Al-Khalil, who writes a DaHiller column called The Latest Word. "So they were like, 'What's he gonna write this year?'"
DEFAMATION OR MUCKRAKING?
The new school year heated up quickly. In September, running on a platform of rolling back displinary rules and holding the administration accountable for broken promises, Bichao won the student body election by an overwhelming margin, becoming one of the few juniors to be elected president in school history. DaHiller cranked out more than two new items a week, ranging from lengthy Bichao essays on students' rights, to news briefs about cheerleading personnel, to rebuttals by Sergio's targets -- including a corrective by Henning to clear up a DaHiller-stoked controversy over casting for "The Wiz."
But the real brouhaha began when Bichao started seriously criticizing school employees. First came a Nov. 8 report that quoted several unnamed students as saying the school's all-black security guards were racist against Hispanics, and that two named administrators were racist against blacks. (Hillside High's demographics since the Newark riots of 1967 have gone from being almost exclusively Jewish/Irish/Italian, to two-thirds black with sizeable Portuguese and white minorities.) None of the accused were quoted.
Then came an attack on Bichao's fill-in Honors Chemistry teacher, Kevin Kolans, who Sergio accused of "not knowing anything" and "damaging" students' education. "Mr. Kolans is not a teacher; he is a student...and a poor one at that," he wrote.
Though Kolans himself, an Earth Sciences specialist who guided the class as a favor until the new Chemistry teacher showed up, says he didn't take the "completely inaccurate" column personally ("I really don't take a lot of stock in what a 16-year-old writes"), there began the first rumblings that the teacher's union might get involved.
The biggest tempest came in early January, when Bichao reported that a teacher used a cell phone during class, in violation of school rules, and that the instructor was also "bi-polar" and "eccentric" to boot.
The teachers' lounge was now buzzing with debate over DaHiller. Principal James mentioned the site by name in a faculty meeting about teachers abiding by the rules they enforce, according to Henning. Hoek, who was catching earfulls, pulled his former student aside for a bit of a tongue-lashing.
"In both cases many teachers were upset because they feel that this is their livelihood and that can become compromised. ... We're all capable of indiscretions from time to time -- it does not necessarily mean we want them broadcast on a public format," Hoek said. "[But] he has never conceded, for as long as I have known him, on any position."
Karen Joseph, spokesperson for the New Jersey chapter of the National Education Association, says it is "very difficult" to balance a student's free-speech rights against "defaming someone's reputation," but that no cases have yet come to her attention. "If a student wrote disparaging remarks about a teacher, and the administration or school board took those remarks seriously, and attempted in any way at all to discipline a teacher, that would be a problem," Joseph said. "If there is a Web site that is highly disrespectful to teachers" -- such as depicting them having sex -- "we would expect a school board to do whatever it could legally do to shut that down."
Edwin Darden, a senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, says schools have a variety of options when faced with an unwelcome student Web site, including contacting the Internet service provider if the content can be shown to violate user agreements, having individual teachers file defamation-of-character lawsuits, or even contacting law enforcement if there is any threat.
"But I think that the quickest, simplest way is to have a sit-down with the student and their parents, and to try and come up with some sort of reasonable conclusion," Darden said. "Generally that is effective."
When Hoek gave Sergio his heated warning, Henning saw the controversial publisher moments after. "He walked out of the auditorium and before he left he stopped and said, 'I WILL NOT BE SILENCED!!' [After] he wrote an editorial the next day, I wrote to him and said he sounded like David Koresh just before the tanks came in."
Though his initial published response to the new-found criticism was dismissive ("Apparently, my website fucked around with his job or livelihood or some shit, and doing that, I was told, is wrong"), three weeks later, after the Jan. 28 parent-teacher conference and near-shutdown of the site, Bichao balanced his battle cry with a new mea culpa:
"I must admit certain faults," he wrote. "In my pursuit to provide the most kick-ass, edu-taining online tab ever, I along with my editorial board lost sight of certain professional ethics and standards. Editorials were published without any balanced news reports so that the readers could make up their own minds. Few follow-ups were posted, a few minor errors made, investigations were lacking, and it wouldn't have hurt to ask for comment from the people I covered. Intentions were good, but the practice needed improvement. From now on, DaHiller promises to carry even more in your face, hard-core, all the while accurate journalism."
'THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN HILLSIDE'
Ironically, for all of his David-and-Goliath bluster and the Hillside administration's palpable discomfort over DaHiller attracting outside attention (principal James declined to be interviewed for this story), even some of Bichao's targets express admiration for what he does, and defend his right to do it. Kolans, for example, who Bichao called "The teacher that couldn't," says he thinks DaHiller is "fantastic."
"I like kids that have a little attitude, and a little oomph," the teacher said. "That's what Sergio's like -- which is fine, but he takes it to the point where his material's not researched, and he gets himself in trouble. ... He just needs to know what his parameters are."
Despite the debate among teachers, Henning says he hasn't heard any calls to pull the plug on the kid he calls "the most dangerous man in Hillside."
"I don't think anybody says he shouldn't do it. I mean, They're finding out things they don't even know," he said. "I think any high school that doesn't have a kid writing an underground newspaper is not doing it's job, right?"
Hoek says he disagrees with a lot of Bichao's articles, thinks Sergio "gets a little too National Enquirerish," and now he doesn't even read DaHiller regularly anymore. And at the same time, he has offered his own money to help pay for Bichao to take a journalism seminar at Columbia University across the Hudson.
"I don't hide the fact that I think that eventually some day Sergio Bichao is going to be coming back to Hillside High School to talk in front of the school," Hoek said. "But, you know, we have to give him time -- we have to remember what we were like in the 11th grade."
For now, Bichao is sharpening his knives, discovering the joys of British tabloids, and contemplating his next outrage ("I think we're gonna start publishing the dropouts on the Web site ... I can put the reason -- who's pregnant, who got kicked out..."). He plans on going to college, hopefully in New York City, whose skyline is the screen saver on his bedroom computer.
Ask him how he plans to get into journalism -- whether he might join up at the local Gazette-Leader of Hillside and Elizabeth, for example -- and he gives a puzzled look.
"I don't know. I haven't thought about that. Never comes to my mind."