The issue of cyberbullying might finally get the attention it deserves.
A landmark Maryland bill, known as "Grace's Law," will make online bullying a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and/or a $500 maximum fine.
It has recently passed the General Assembly and is awaiting signature by Maryland Governor Martin O'Mally.
The bill is named after Grace McComas, a high school student who took her life in 2012 on Easter after being repeatedly harassed online by a neighbor. State Senator Allan H. Kittleman's children go to the same school that Grace McComas once did, and he is the sponsor of the bill.
He tells TakePart, the goal of the bill is to "prevent the cyberbullying that happened to Grace and others."
State attorneys have told him, he says, "that with the language we have now, we will be able to prosecute the type of conduct that Grace was having to deal with."
Grace's parents, David and Chris McComas, tried to stop the bullying several times. First they went to the bully's parents and then the school, but nothing changed.
When they went to the police and the state attorney's office, Kittleman says, they were told that basically under Maryland law nothing could be done.
Currently, Kittleman says, Maryland "has a law dealing with harassment on the Internet, but it has to be direct communication—whether it's dealing with a text or email from one person to another. There wasn't anything in our law that dealt with Facebook, Twitter or other things that are out there in cyberspace."
Now with the new bill, both adults and juveniles who are bullying kids under 18 online could face consequences. Kittleman is clear that the bill isn't for people who send out one or two nasty tweets. It is for those who "engage in a course of contuct." It states:
This bill prohibits a person from using an “interactive computer service” to maliciously engage in a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress on a minor or places a minor in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury with the intent (1) to kill, injure, harass, or cause serious emotional distress to the minor or (2) to place the minor in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.
While there are many champions of the bill, the ACLU of Maryland has questioned the constitutionality of the language and whether it violates a person's free speech.
Justin Patchin, the codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, also has his doubts.
He feels that it won't "deter students from engaging in cyberbullying because teens don't stop and think 'I might get a fine' or 'I might be charged criminally, so I better not.'"
Patchin says it's more about educating kids on the issue. "Probably the most common responses I get from teens who've admitted to me that they've engaged in cyberbullying is they say they're just joking around, their having fun, or it wasn't that big of a deal." The kids, he says, don't consider the consequences to them and the victim.
"Part of it," he says, "is making people aware that this is a big deal, it's something that we shouldn't be tolerating, and everyone has a role to respond."
Kittleman feels that education isn't enough. The law, he says, "is going to allow us the opportunity for someone to go to an individual who is doing this and tell them they are violating the law and if they don't stop, they can be prosecuted."
"It's something that we can do to be proactive," Kittleman says.
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