At most schools, playground bullies get sent to detention or receive a reprimand. But nasty behavior can now land you a misdemeanor charge in the city of Carson, Calif.—and authorities around the country are considering similar laws to prevent victims of bullying from taking drastic measures.
The Carson ordinance, approved Tuesday night, punishes those who harass anyone younger than 25 in a way that may result in any harm, physical or mental.
Federal officials say more than a quarter of students in the U.S. are bullied each year, increasing their chances of emotional problems, academic challenges, and even suicidal behavior. Kids and teens who are the victims of bullying—and even the bullies themselves—are more likely to commit suicide or have suicidal thoughts than those not involved, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.
But some experts question whether criminalizing bullying is an effective way to stop it. Jim Dillon, the director at the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention, said that although Carson’s new law is “well intentioned,” it may not be successful. Bullying is highly subject to interpretation and is largely based on context. Only 5 percent of bullying in schools is witnessed by the staff, Dillon said.
“Bullying is not like exceeding the speed limit, or punching somebody, or very discrete, observable actions that you can sort of see and respond to,” he said. “It’s not a type of social matter that you can fix, so to speak, through the criminal justice system.”
The Carson law defines harassment as conduct that causes a person to feel “terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested, and which serves no legitimate purpose.” It also applies to cyberbullying and sending “hurtful, rude and mean text messages” or “spreading rumors or lies about others by email or social networks.”
There is no federal law that applies specifically to bullying or cyberbullying, and most states address the issue primarily through educational codes, experts say. But this may change soon. In Florida, bullying is “prohibited,” but a new state bill aims to make it a crime. Dubbed Rebecca's Law, the effort was named after a 12-year-old girl who jumped to her death after being repeatedly bullied by other teenage students. If passed, bullying and cyberbullying would be classified as misdemeanors and carry a yearlong prison sentence on the second offense.
In other extreme circumstances, criminal charges have been brought against student bullies whose actions resulted in the victim’s suicide. In 2010 in New York, 15-year-old Phoebe Price hanged herself at home after repeated harassment from a group of classmates. Six teenagers were charged in her death with an assortment of felony counts, including stalking and violation of civil rights with bodily injury.
Following Prince’s suicide, Massachusetts drafted a new law that requires school staff and principals to be more vigilant about reporting and investigating incidents of harassment. Just last month, the state approved additional legislation requiring schools to establish “bullying prevention plans,” as well as procedures for collecting bullying incident data.
Bullying is like a Broadway show, said Dillon: If there is no audience, there is no performance. Kids often bully others in front of a crowd because they think it helps build their popularity, and it turns out they may be right. Bullying boosts the social status and power of middle school students, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study released last year.
Over the course of about one year, psychologists studied almost 2,000 students at 11 middle schools in L.A. Students responded to questions about who they thought were the “coolest” in the student body and who were the ones who “start fights or push other kids around.” The study found that aggression and popularity were connected.
“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” UCLA professor Jaana Juvonen, the study’s author, said in a statement.
So while peers may give the bullies power, they are also the ones who can take it away. Research shows that only 20 to 30 percent of bullying victims self-report, so it is often up to classmates to intervene. Encouraging bystanders to report incidents or stick up for victims is one of the most effective ways to reduce rates of bullying overall, according to Dillon.
While law enforcement may have a hard time catching bullies in the classroom, Carson’s new ordinance may be effective when it comes to cyberbullying. “You’re more likely to get some hard evidence,” Dillon said.
Cyberbullying can take place in the form of Facebook posts or emails, instant messaging, tweets, or texts—all forms of electronic communication that often leave a trail. The proliferation of social media and cell phones hasn’t created a new class of victims, said Dillon, but it has made it easier for bullies to harass on multiple platforms.
“Students can now experience bullying 24/7, and the instances tend to be public and hard to control,” Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, wrote in an email. “However, this same prevalence creates opportunities for students to prevent and address bullying among their social circles. Students can reach out to targets of bullying online, counteract negative comments, and report harmful posts to the social media site.”