Unplugged: Palo Alto's Wicked Web Site

IT MAY HAVE BEEN intended as a joke, but school officials in the northern California community of Palo Alto weren't laughing last week when they pulled the plug on a Web site rating the looks of incoming ninth-grade girls. ""More than one comment crossed the line of appropriateness, good taste and even sexual harassment as defined by the California Education Code,'' says Irv Rollins, the district's assistant superintendent. The site, believed to have been launched a month ago, judged girls from Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School on a 1-to-10 scale and included comments like ""scary, big chick,'' ""sexually confused'' and ""bacon for everyone!'' One boy and two teachers were also on the list.

An irate mother alerted school officials, who notified Geocities, the site's Internet provider. The company yanked the page because, a spokesman says, it violated ""hate speech'' guidelines. Only a few people called up the page, says Karl Sowa, Geocities' marketing director, because it was in a directory without links to other pages. Users would have to know the address or use a special search engine to find it.

School officials say they don't know who created the site, and they're not launching an inquiry since no laws were broken. What punishment fits this noncrime? ""If it turns out the Web site was created on school time and on school premises, the student or students would be expelled for sexual harassment,'' Rollins says. Until then, there are a lot of bruised egos. ""Middle school is a time of great sensitivity,'' Rollins says. ""These words can hurt every bit as much as a punch in the face.''