National Edition

Could bullying and harassment become a criminal offense?

Published: Thursday, May 22 2014 4:10 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, June 3 2014 1:27 p.m. MDT

In this Oct. 24, 2013 photo, Mark Risinger, 16, checks his Facebook page on his computer as his mother, Amy Risinger, looks on at their home in Glenview, Ill. The recommendations are bound to prompt eye-rolling and LOLs from many teens but an influential pediatrician's group says unrestricted media use has been linked with violence, cyber-bullying, school woes, obesity, lack of sleep and a host of other problems. Markís mom said she agrees with restricting kidsí time on social media but that deciding on other media limits should be up to parents. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Nam Y. Huh, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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With suicide the third largest cause of death among teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the role of bullying in fomenting self-destructive thoughts has drawn increasing attention in recent years.

A recent survey conducted at Clemson University found that 16 percent of students between grades 3 and 12 reported being bullied often, between 2 and 3 times a month.

And many experts fear that the rapid rise of social media has made bullying and harassment among teens both easier and more damaging. In 2011 a Centers for Disease Control survey found that 22 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys had been bullied on social media in the past year.

Schools and cities around the country have begun looking at legal means to rein in bullying at school. Last week a southern California city council, following models set by two Wisconsin cities, tentatively voted to criminalize the bullying or harassment of school age kids. A final vote is slated for later this month.

Authorities in Carson, California, a city of 93,000 in Los Angeles County, hope the proposed law can reduce depression and teen suicide, as well as forestall episodes of school violence.

Carson’s proposed ordinance would make bullying a misdemeanor crime, but the arresting officer would be empowered to reduce the citation to an infraction, on par with a speeding ticket.

The city would also criminalize parental indifference. After parents have been warned regarding their child’s behavior, if the child bullies again within 90 days the parent is assumed to have “allowed or permitted” it and could face the same legal penalties.

No one doubts the good intentions of anti-bullying ordinances, but some skeptics fear that the proposed law’s noble goals mask serious constitutional issues.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, for one, doubts that the Carson ordinance would stand up to constitutional scrutiny. The law could suppress constitutionally protected speech while granting too much authority to the arresting officer, he argued.

The core challenge for the Carson proposal, Volokh says, is that it appears to be “vague and over broad,” rendering it easily subject to abuse and very difficult to defend from constitutional challenge under the First Amendment.

Community support

Carson modeled its proposed law on similar efforts in a handful of other cities, including that of Milton, Wisconsin. In four years of enforcement, Milton has avoided legal challenge or even significant controversy by enforcing its law very cautiously, local authorities say.

Milton has a very strong anti-bullying push in the community, with parent and student groups focusing attention on the issue, Milton Police Chief Dan Layber said. The police department website has a bullying alert web form that allows anonymous reporting of incidents including the names of the bully and the bullied.

“We meet regularly and provide a lot of education to the schools,” Layber said. “We get a lot of publicity.”

Most bullying incidents are handled internally by the schools, with the threat of police involvement serving as a backdrop rather than a primary tool, said Jim Martin, the police officer assigned to Milton’s schools.

The first case that went to court under Milton’s law in 2010 involved a kid screaming in the face of another child, after repeated abuses and repeated warnings. He was fined $177 under the ordinance, pled guilty in court, and ultimately paid $100. His parents attended the court proceedings.

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