A Florida bill advanced in the Senate this week to make bullying a crime, including cyber-bullying online. The new offenses criminalize a range of “harassing” behavior, both in-person and on the Internet. And a second conviction would send perpetrators to jail for a year, criminalizing what is primarily a problem among youths.
The bill comes in response to concerns of escalating bullying, especially cyberbulling, and is named for 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide in September 2013, after two teen peers allegedly harassed her over her dating of a particular boy. While Rebecca’s case did not involve LGBT harassment, bullying has been a particular concern among LGBT youth.
The bill establishes that someone who “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly harasses or cyberbullies another person commits the offense of bullying” — a misdemeanor — and that those who engage in such harassment accompanied by a threat are guilty of a third-degree felony.
The proposal moves to criminalize more youth behavior, even as Florida has made efforts to move away from a trend of criminalizing school misbehavior and giving kids an early introduction to the criminal system in what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Saddling kids with arrests, suspensions, and particularly juvenile detention for misbehavior has found to only exacerbate later behavior, and increase the likelihood that they will later commit other crimes.
These “zero tolerance” school policies that impose harsh punishment for misbehavior mete out punishment disproportionately not just on racial minorities, but also on lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, who are over-represented in the juvenile justice system. A recent Center for American Progress report finds that these overly punitive disciplinary policies are as detrimental if not moreso to LGBT youth as the bullying itself.
But Florida would not be the first to respond to escalated attention to bullying with criminalization and other punitive sanctions. The vast majority of states — 42 — have passed some sort of bullying law, and 24 of them rely solely on punitive measures, rather than training, counseling and other rehabilitative approaches. Fifteen state laws include procedures for imposing criminal sanctions, and eight have “created new crimes or modified existing ones, to include bullying behavior,” according to the Advancement Project. As the organization explains in a report on why this trend is counter-productive:
So-called “bullies” are, of course, youth themselves, and are thus struggling with their own insecurities — about their intelligence, social skills, physical attractiveness, attraction to others, gender expression, etc. — and are often just learning to understand themselves and the world around them. They are themselves frequently victims of messages of intolerance, hostility, and hate at home, at school, and from the media. […]
Indeed, zero-tolerance responses can actually have the unintended effects of strengthening a bully’s resolve and further victimizing the recipient of his or her aggression.
Among the laws passed in the last few years are a Maryland law that made cyberbullying a misdemeanor in May 2013, also punishable by a year in jail. The year before that, North Carolina made it a crime for students to harass their teachers online.
Florida, where the bill passed a Senate committee this week, has been known over the past few years for arresting more students than any other state, for violations that include trespassing at their own school.