Cyberbullying? Call in the sheriff!

When bullying makes news, lawmakers draft bills.

In 2008 the Missouri State Legislature passed what is know as Megan’s law, after Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who hanged herself in October 2006 in response to being tormented by her (fake) MySpace friend Josh. One week ago (April 29, 2010), the Massachusetts State Legislature passed an anti-bullying law in response to the suicide of Phoebe Prince, requiring all teachers and school employees to report bullying to the principal of the school and requiring the principal to investigate all claims. Forty-one states now have laws against bullying, and last fall Congress debated a federal anti-cyberbullying bill that would make it a federal crime to send a communication intended to “coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to another person.”

The United States has engaged in a longstanding love-affair with the courts and the criminal justice system, believing that the bigger the problem, the bigger the legal stick required. The result has been an ever-widening net of student behaviors in school that attract legal consequences.

But is student bullying something that we really want to criminalize? In any given semester millions of students engage in bullying, using behaviors that range from exclusion, taunting through to physical violence. Clearly the majority of these behaviors are not severe enough to warrant criminalization. Then where is the dividing line? When congress debated its version of the Megan Meier cyber bullying law, the proposed bill was limited to cyberbullying that caused “substantial emotional distress to another person”. But what constitutes “substantial”? Severe enough to interfere with schoolwork? Or only if the bullying results in suicide? In either case the question of whether it is criminal depends on the subjective response of the target of bullying – hardly satisfying the principle of jurisprudence that the law be clear and predictable.

Beyond this is the question whether criminal prosecution actually helps the moral development of the students involved. In Phoebe Prince’s case, two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Likely, many of the accused are passing anxious days wondering when and how the criminal system will spit them out. If convicted, the experience will probably haunt these adolescents for the rest of their lives. Will this lead to their becoming more caring or engaged citizens? Really?