The North Vancouver School district has sent out a notice urging students and parents to "refrain" from posting online about an alleged sexual attack at an "unsanctioned" graduation party after the incident set off a digital firestorm of chatter and speculation.

"We recognize that social media plays a significant part in the communication of any news and that it can be both helpful and harmful. ... As this is an ongoing investigation, students are encouraged to refrain from discussing the case on social media," said the email from one North Shore secondary school principal.

Similar letters were sent to every school in the district, sparking heated debate over whether online discussion can or should be restricted.

"Didn't think we lived in communist China where we are asked not to comment on social media about an accused rapist," said the father of one student, a friend of the alleged victim.

At the heart of it all is an attack on a teenaged girl in a Vancouver nightclub Feb. 28 at a grad party. A 16-year-old has been charged in the case, but his identity is protected.

Social media experts say publicizing crimes can derail criminal investigations, identify minors and ruin lives.

"When you have an event that's occurred that's very dramatic in nature involving people that you know or even friends of friends it really impacts the community," said Jesse Miller of Mediated Reality.

Private bubble bursts fast

"Schools try to control but the media itself is quite uncontrollable," said Miller teaches schools, students and their parents about the ethics of communication in the digital age.

He says the reality is often school newsletters come out three days after news has already spread like wildfire online.

Miller said a lot of young online users have no idea "how quickly their private bubble can be burst" and a posting they meant for a friend goes viral.

"These kids are entirely too young to understand these concepts," said Miller. "Our kids have tools that they don't understand how to use, but they understand how to push the buttons."

Young accused and victims protected in Canada

In Canada courts protect the identity of accused criminals under the age of 18. If a media organization identifies a young person they can be charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act and face a maximum $5,000 fine or a prison term.

Young people are protected to give them a chance to rehabilitate and start over.

Party-goers and their friends started posting online after a very public, allegedly violent attack in a Vancouver nightclub where a 16-year-old boy was arrested after a young woman was assaulted in a bathroom. He was later charged with aggravated sexual assault and forcible confinement.

High level of violence, police say

Vancouver police are limited by the age of the alleged offender and victim in what they can say.

"Didn't think we lived in communist China." - Father of a teen friend of the alleged sexual assault victim

"There's lots of witnesses. There's lots of video," said Const. Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department.

"It's not something we see a lot of in Vancouver. We do have, unfortunately, a large number of sexual assaults. They don't often get to this level of violence," Montague told CBC after the arrest.

Police warn that trying an individual on social media can also affect the case if it ultimately goes to court. Witnesses may be tainted by what they saw or read online.

Encore Dance Club crime scene

The Encore Dance Club was surrounded by police cars after an 11 p.m. PT call on Feb. 28 started the investigation into an alleged violent sexual assault. (CBC)

A judge might even take into consideration the harm done to the young offender by a viral online shaming, when determining a sentence. Publicizing a young person's identity (even a victim or a witness to a crime) is a criminal offence that can result in up to two years in jail even if only on social media.

When a second charge was added after the Encore Dance Club attack, accusing the same young man of assault in October 2015 Facebook friends of the initial victim knew long before any police announcement.

School board officials say they try to educate students with poster campaigns and outreach to foster an understanding of just how public many private postings become.

"We try to be proactive," said Deneka Michaud, spokesperson for the North Vancouver School District. "We explained to students and parents that you need to be responsible digital citizens and remember your posts could impede the investigation."

People forget posts also hurt victim

The case will now wind its way through court, and even though the teen was charged presumptively as an adult because the charge was aggravated assault, he may ultimately be tried as a young offender and must remain unidentified, unless the courts deem differently.

Those ignoring laws and posting details also risk lawsuits if the allegations are proven untrue although Jesse Miller says it has traditionally been journalists who get penalized and even that is rare.

"You can't stop somebody without them being defined as a journalist and just having social media doesn't make you a journalist," he said explaining why it's is difficult to stop individuals from outing alleged criminals.

They also risk forever linking the victim to an event she will likely spend the remainder of her life trying to escape.

Police lights

One man was killed and three others — all young women — were injured in a single vehicle car crash in Prince George early Saturday morning. (CBC)