Cyberbullying should be a crime, according to a bill from Rep. Rhonda Fields of Aurora. The House Education Committee agreed unanimously today. HB 1131 would make general cyberbullying a class 2 misdemeanor and bias-motivated bullying a tougher class 1 misdemeanor.
Fields said she wasn’t confident about the bill’s prospects going into testimony and was pleasantly surprised that her committee colleagues all agreed that cyber bullying is a public safety issue, not a partisan one. She credited much of that understanding to the young people who came forward to testify about their own online experiences.
Bailey, 17, is a senior at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora. She was harassed on line during her sophomore year at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada.
“They targeted my looks and how I dressed,” she told lawmakers. “They called me ‘the squirrel’ because I’m slightly harrier than most people. They would find videos on YouTube of squirrels being ripped apart or blown up and post them to Facebook, saying ‘I wish this would happen to the squirrel at our school.'”
“They’d message me and say that no one liked me, that everyone would prefer me dead.”
Bailey went to her vice principal who told her that because the bullying happened online it wasn’t a school issue. As she tells it, the administrator also suggested that if she weren’t so weird, she wouldn’t be bullied.
With her mother sick in the hospital and little other support, Bailey eventually resorted to cutting as a coping mechanism. She recovered, but the worst part of cyberbullying is that it never really goes away, she noted.
“When it’s online you can go back and look at it over and over and over again,” she testified. “You always see it. Always.”
Dozens of students who’ve experienced cyberbullying came forward today — some in groups of two or three — to testify to the education committee in favor of a bill that would protect them from on-line torment.
Dr. Rhonda Williams, executive director of the Colorado School Counseling Association, testified about how pervasive cyberbulling is among youth. About 80 percent of teenagers have a mobile device and a third of those kids send more than 100 texts a day. Somewhere in that mass of communication, a quarter of all students experience at least one instance of cyberbulling before graduating high school, she told lawmakers. Among LGBTQ students, that figure is vastly higher: one in two.
With phones always at hand, the argument goes, teens are never really safe from cyberbulling, even at home. Kids who are targeted are twice as likely as their peers to become suicidal.
Stephanie, a student at Summit Academy in Denver, testified that being cyberbullied on Facebook a few months ago prompted her to consider ending her life.
“I’ve literally had people from my old school, where I haven’t been for two years, message me and tell me I deserve the worst — to die. It makes you feel worthless,” she said.
“There was a point when I considered suicide the only solution,” added Juan, also a student at Summit.
Several counselors, advocates and law enforcers also came forward in support of the bill, which they see as the best solution available for a growing problem.
18th District Attorney George Brauchler called the bill a much needed tool that would allow him to prosecute for on-line bullying without having to shoe-horn it into current statue. As the law stands, online cruelty is classified either too gently as light harassment or too severely as felony stalking, he said.
Some members of the eduction committee worried that classifying another crime would, in the eyes of the law, turn more teenagers into criminals. Brauchler said that’s not the aim.
“My goal as a prosecutor is not to get more and more juveniles into the system. In fact, what you’ve seen over the last ten years is a strong move by prosecutors to try to divert kids out of the system. The proof of that is that in 2002-2003 we filed about 25,000 juvenile cases statewide (and) last year it was under 12,000 juvenile cases,” he said.
“When good people stand by and do nothing, that’s when tragedy can happen,” Fields said. “So what we’re doing in the state of Colorado is being proactive … I do think this is a deterrent.”
The measure will now go to the House Appropriations committee.