By: Eric Walter , Special to The Daily Record//April 30, 2012
By: Eric Walter , Special to The Daily Record//April 30, 2012//
The Monroe County Legislature will consider a new law that could authorize fines of up to $1,000 or a year in jail for those found guilty of cyberbullying.
The bill, which cleared the legislature’s Agenda/Charter Committee earlier this month, will go before the full legislature at their May 8 meeting.
The fact that bullying is a problem among school aged children and teens is nothing new, said sponsor Carmen Gumina, R-Webster. The 24-hour nature of social media and modern communication technologies have made the potential impact of bullying much worse, however, he said.
It used to be that bullying generally stopped when kids left school for the day. With widespread access to things like Facebook, Twitter and other tools, harassment can continue in or out of school, 24 hours a day, said Gumina, who is an assistant superintendent of the Webster Central School District. Research has shown that 1 in 5 children are harassed via technology, he said.
While other states have adopted specific legislation aimed at curbing cyberbullying, New York has not, he noted. In the absence of a state law, local lawmakers must act, he said.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the proposed legislation. While agreeing with Gumina that cyberbullying is a problem, Monroe County School Boards Executive Director Jody Siegle said she found some elements of the proposed legislation problematic.
“What if it’s a minor bullying a minor? You don’t often see an adult cyberbullying a minor,” she said. “If a 14-year-old child cyberbullies another 14-year-old child, we could put them in jail or fine them $1,000?”
Minor-on-minor bullying would be better handled through counseling, parental involvement, in-school discipline and through other methods, Siegle said. While educators cannot be responsible for all that goes on outside of schools, they can often intervene in cases where out-of-school harassment is impacting a student’s school life.
Christina Gagnier, a California-based attorney who advises school districts on cyberbullying issues agrees. She also found that the proposed legislation’s definition of cyberbullying may be too broad for effective and consistent enforcement.
In part, that definition reads: “Acts of abusive behavior shall include, but not be limited to: taunting; threatening; intimidating; insulting; tormenting; humiliating; disseminating sexually explicit photographs, either actual or modified, of a minor; disseminating the private, personal or sexual information, either factual or false, of a minor without lawful authority.”
The problem, Gagnier said, is that interpretations of what constitutes “personal information” or “insulting behavior” can vary greatly, depending on who is interpreting it.
“There is a description of a couple [of] sentences, but it is not clear what it is,” Gagnier said.
Cyberbullying is a real problem and many lawmakers on both a state and local level are struggling to find ways to deal with it, Gagnier noted. While not addressing cyberbullying specifically, New York state does have laws on the books that address bullying in general, she said. Those laws do not provide criminal sanctions, she said.
Gumina stressed that the proposed bill is not meant as a catch all to curb all technological harassment of minors, but rather should be part of a comprehensive plan by educators, parents and others.
“We are convinced this will make a difference but it is certainly not a cure,” Gumina said.
The factors that contribute to bullying behavior are so complex that legal consequences alone cannot be expected to fix the problem. According to Gumina, having a law on the books does provide a way to raise awareness and a way to provide consequences.
“Right now there are [often] no consequences,” he said.