Last week, state attorneys dropped charges against the girls accused of harassing Rebecca Sedwick. This week, Sedwick’s mother, Tricia Norman, announced that she will be seeking civil action against the girls who bullied her daughter, and she’ll be campaigning for a new state law -- dubbed “Rebecca’s Law” -- to make cyberbullying illegal. I was disappointed when I heard charges had been dropped because I felt it sent a signal to kids (and their parents) that there are no real consequences for cyberbullying. Moreover, the fact that charges were dropped signals to me that existing statutes don’t give law enforcement the tools they need to combat harassment when it occurs online -- and that’s a gaping hole, in my opinion.
In October, through our Justice Outreach organization, we presented a proposed law that recognizes and defines cyberbullying. Our proposed law also suggests that parents should be held accountable in cases where it can be shown that they were culpably negligent of their children's online activities. We feel that our proposed law empowers the parents of bullied children who could present evidence of bullying to the parents of children who bully, effectively putting them on notice, giving them a warning that future bullying could lead to criminal charges against them and their children.
Tricia Norman’s attorney, Matt Morgan, announced their intention to take the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013 to the US Congress. Morgan says this Act would require schools receiving Federal money to have anti-cyberbullying policies and procedures in place, and it would require them to stick to their policies. I think schools play an important role in preventing cyberbullying, but I fear making schools responsible for enforcing cyberbullying is dangerous. I don’t want schools to divert resources away from education and toward monitoring student’s social media behavior for fear of losing Federal funding. After all, it is parents who are ultimately responsible for their children’s behavior.
Moreover, schools, whether they have anti-cyberbullying policies in place or not, have very little power to do anything about it. We feel our proposed Parental Responsibility Bill will give schools some teeth when it comes to preventing cyberbullying. Administrators could present evidence of bullying to parents of victims and to parents of bullies, and inform them that if the bullying continues from that point they become culpably negligent, and they expose themselves to criminal charges. I suspect parents would take a much more proactive approach to monitoring their children’s social media after such a meeting.
The demand for a cyberbullying law is in the air. Changes in our technology and our culture have outpaced our current regulations, and I don’t think we need to wait for more victims of cyberbullying to come forward before we decide to do something about it. We’ll be watching with interest to see how “Rebecca’s Law” takes shape, and we suspect that in the next months there will be other proposals as well. This is all good news because it tells me Florida will soon have a cyberbully law, and we intend to be a part of the fight to get that law passed.