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Schoolyard Bullies or Criminals?

What apparently caused the rift between the girls was nothing new, played out as adolescent drama in countless classrooms, school halls, and rumor mills for generations:  Two girls had a falling out over a boy who had once “dated” one but was now the boyfriend of the other (“dated” in parentheses because one of the girls in question was 12, the other 14, so how much real “dating” went on?  True enough, but at that age emotions run hot and crushes deep).   Feelings were hurt, words exchanged, and classmates and friends took up sides with most, it seemed, landing on that of the older and current girlfriend.  And then the relentless taunting of the younger girl began in earnest and continued for more than a year until finally, unable to take any more from her chief tormentor and as many as fifteen other girls – including her onetime best friend – Rebecca Sedwick climbed to the top of a silo at an abandoned concrete plant and threw herself to her death.

Even the tragedy of her suicide, which appeared to stem directly from the abuse heaped upon her, is hardly a new response to the age-old pain of taunting – or, for our purposes here, bullying – as the instances of both attempted and completed suicides of children and young adults who have faced serious and ongoing harassment by peers do seem to be on the rise.  What is relatively new were the means by which most of the bullying took place, via online messages directed at and about her by more than a dozen girls, its severity and relentlessness, and that the bullying led Polk County, FL Sheriff Grady Judd to arrest Rebecca’s 14 year old romantic rival and her 12 year old former best friend on felony charges of aggravated stalking (the charges have since been dropped by prosecutors).  Whether Sheriff Judd’s decision to arrest the two is one I agree with, I cannot say; I’m unfamiliar with both the entirety of the facts in this case and how they were applied to fit the aggravated stalking charge under which Polk County charged them.  What I do know is the move was remarkable in applying a criminal justice solution to what has traditionally been considered primarily a civil problem under the purview of the schools and parents.

Are law enforcement solutions to bullying a coming trend?

Bullying is one of those current hot topics receiving a great deal of attention in the press and, perhaps largely because of this current high profile, even among various politicians looking to get out ahead of the issue (or at least appear responsive to such high-profile cases as this one and others, or to the complaints of parents whose children are bullied and seeking help).  While laws to combat bullying in schools now exist in almost all states (Montana is the lone exception), they almost invariably mandate actions to be taken within schools to establish safety, respond to instances of bullying, and define services to be provided and to whom.  They generally lack specific criminal sanctions against perpetrators, although schools and their administrators are held accountable for the environment they create and maintain. 

There is a small but growing movement among some local jurisdictions to impose criminal sanctions on either bullies and/or their parents as real and anecdotal evidence of bullying and its consequences continues to amass.  Recent passed and proposed anti-bullying legislation in cities such as Kansas City, MO, Ridgefield, NJ, Monona, WI, and Benton Harbor, MI make bullying a quasi-criminal offense under local ordinances, and responsibility for its enforcement on their police departments.  This is a movement likely to only gain steam.  The question we should consider is whether this should be considered a welcome trend or a well-meaning, but flawed, legislative overreach. 

Difficulties with criminalizing “bullying”

Probably the most difficult aspect of these recent ordinances lay in defining exactly what constitutes “bullying.”  It is one of those terms that can cover such a wide range of behavior and words so pervasive in all our schools, playgrounds, and social settings kids are exposed to.  Even in adulthood, work and social bullies still make their mark, extending the torments of childhood and adolescence for many adults.  Trying to define the many acts that may constitute bullying, and when they cross from simple teasing or schoolyard taunts to criminal harassment, can challenge law enforcement and the courts and, if not handled with discretion, the legal remedies for them may actually bring more harm to their victims than the original bullying.  Sometimes parents, teachers, or law enforcement intervening in typical childhood disputes might exacerbate the problem or interfere with the development of important coping and problem-solving skills. 

Bullying is a very ambiguous term and something that, depending on which definition is used, almost all of us have been both victim and offender of at some time or another in our early lives.  But although many of us have, by definition, been bullied, relatively few of us think of ourselves as having been victims.  And although many of us have done things that, by definition, might be considered bullying, relatively few of us would be remembered by our “victims” as bullies.  Where do we, as law enforcement, draw a bright line to guide our discretionary powers?  A reading of most passed or proposed anti-bullying ordinances also clearly demonstrates the ambiguity of defining what is bullying. Good intentions are no guarantee of good law, and a poorly written or defined law just creates confusion and frustration among those who must try to enforce it. 

Addressing bullying with existing resources before we have new - and worse - options imposed

Bullying today is very different from what most of us remember; what most of us who came of age even a few years ago might have witnessed or experienced has been rendered almost quaint by the technological advances of today.  Social media platforms expose kids to bullying in new and vicious ways, and as a highly public and humiliating experience.  For some kids, it overwhelms their ability to cope.  It is incumbent on law enforcement to be aware of the psychological dangers of modern-day bullying, and respond appropriately when it becomes clear other strategies to combat it are insufficient. 

Clear, well-defined criminal law is essential to effective law enforcement.  Ambiguous, open-to-interpretation statutes create confusion and discord, and overly generalized anti-bullying ordinances can be those kinds of statutes.  Our concern is with the potential for anti-bullying specific law to criminalize otherwise normal, age-appropriate behavior that kids need to learn how to work through on their own, or to draw such wide and ill-defined definitions as to render the laws unworkable.  Better that officers be alert to at-risk kids, pay attention to patterns of behavior they see between alleged perpetrators and their victims, and creatively apply existing (and ostensibly better-written and conceived) statutes where appropriate.  Otherwise, you risk policymakers saddling you with good intentions and bad law.