Snyder County District Attorney Mike Piecuch pointed to a case in Missouri as a clear-cut example of why Pennsylvania needs to pass cyberbullying legislation during a recent hearing before the House judiciary committee.
But a case far closer to home illustrates both the desperate need for something to be done and the challenge of crafting effective public policy that will protect kids from online tormentors.
Almost three years ago, Brandon Bitner, a freshman at Midd-West High School, a half mile from Piecuch’s office in the Snyder County Courthouse, committed suicide by walking into the path of a tractor-trailer.
Tammy Simpson, Brandon’s mother, and other relatives maintain the boy’s suicide was prompted by harassment at school. Simpson has traveled to Harrisburg to lobby for improved bullying reporting systems in school.
After the judiciary committee hearing, Piecuch said that no one ever presented any evidence to him that Bitner had been subjected to cyberbullying. Piecuch said he is aware that the boy’s family believes bullying was a factor.
“Currently, no criminal offense adequately address cyberharassment” even if there is evidence that it occurred, Piecuch said.
Piecuch was in Harrisburg on Thursday to testify on behalf of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association at a hearing for legislation that would criminalize cyberbullying. It is a move that will provide the teeth needed to deter young people from using the Internet and social networking to destroy the lives of peers, Piecuch said.
After a 13-year-old girl in Missouri hanged herself after being cyberbullied, the state passed a legislation targeting electronic harassment. Twenty other states have followed suit, Piecuch said.
Rep. Ron Marsico, chairman of the House judiciary committee, and prime sponsor of the cyberharassment bill, said “normal teasing will not be criminalized.” Rather, the legislation would allow juvenile offenders to be dealt with in juvenile court while adult offenders would be hit with criminal charges.
Simpson, Bitner’s mother, has supported Rep. Dan Truitt’s Safe Schools Act, a bill that would tackle the same problem from a different direction — by aiming to empower schools to fight bullying more effectively.
The Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act would create a clearer definition of bullying, require the Department of Education to provide additional training for teachers on recognizing bullying and require the department to create an online reporting system for bullying.
While there is a broad consensus that cyberbullying is a problem, the two bills illustrate the diverging ideas about how to combat it — by criminalizing the behavior or developing a better way of tracking and managing harassment at school, the place offenders and victims are most likely to interact face-to-face.
Sister Mary Ann Bednar, principal of Bishop McDevitt High School, the Harrisburg Catholic school which hosted Thursday’s hearing, said that school officials struggle while trying to discipline students for behavior off-campus. In many cases, parents of offending students will not cooperate with school discipline, arguing that it’s not the school’s business if the harassing conduct takes place while the students are at home.
“We are in uncharted waters. We need support,” Bednar said. “In many instances, we don’t have a leg to stand on. We can deal with things that happen (in school). But we walk a fine line; it’s not always black and white.”
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told the House judiciary committee that his organization questions whether the effort to criminal online speech would pass Constitutional muster. The ACLU has examined the Safe Schools Act and believes it is legal.
Some members of the judiciary committee took umbrage with the ACLU’s position, arguing that harm caused by cyberbullying ought to outweigh any First Amendment concerns.
“The state has an interest in protecting those harmed” by cyberbullies, said Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County. “Free speech does not mean you can yell ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater.”
Barbin said that sending out malicious gossip on social networking sites would be the modern equivalent of causing an unnecessary panic in a crowded movie theater.
Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.