Internet: Platform for harsh words

Vince Bellino

Vince BellinoA Pennsylvania house judiciary committee passed a bill on Feb. 3 that would define cyberbullying and make offenders face criminal charges.

Twenty five percent of teens reported being cyberbullied in 2014, according to nobullying.com. In response to the growing problem, it seems like Pennsylvania is finally responding.

The bill would punish the use of “electronic communications to threaten harm to a child.”  This would also make repeated statements about a child’s sexuality, sexual activity and physical or mental characteristics an offense, according to cumberlink.com.

Currently, the only legislation in-state that deals with bullying is the Pennsylvania School Code, it says that “schools should adopt and distribute an anti-bullying policy.”  This allows students to be punished as “harassment by communication,” which uses language similar to what many would consider cyberbullying – but the actual act is never specifically mentioned.

What appears to be one of the largest issues with cyberbullying legislation is the ambiguous nature that the code leaves school districts to decipher.

Current Pennsylvania code reads: “each school entity shall adopt a policy or amend its existing policy relating to bullying and incorporate the policy into the school entity’s code of student conduct required …”

In other words, schools are not receiving guidance on how to set cyberbullying policies, or are even required to have them. The lack of uniformity when handling the issue leaves school districts without a direct way to handle the problem.

Aaron Vanatta, a Keystone Oaks School District police officer, told triblive.com that schools are also limited in what their power is to deal with the issues.

“Our hands are really tied,” Vanatta told the site.

He added that unless the incidents are occurring at school or in some way related to the school, officials are essentially powerless.

The problem with this set-up is that a majority of cyberbullying happens outside of school. Most students have access to cellphones and laptops outside of the classroom, which means that cyberbullying is able to happen outside of the classroom.

Stronger legislation, like the one currently entering the house, would do two things that are desperately needed to regulate cyberbullying legislation: it would define what cyberbullying is and it would make it a real crime, not a footnote in the school code.

The recognition of cyberbullying is the first step in taking out the problem. The proposed legislation defines cyberbullying as “cyber harassment of a child.”

That definition is further expanded to say that act can be defined if  “a person commits the crime of cyber harassment of a child if, with intent to harass, annoy or alarm, the person engages in a continuing course of conduct” which includes making statements about a child’s health, sexuality, sexual activity or physical characteristics or if there is a “threat to inflict harm.”

Even with this definition, there is still the possibility for murky water.

The potential negative effects of cyberbullying like a higher risk for anxiety and depression, make it an issue that should be defended.

The proposed legislation covers these effects, referring to emotional distress, which is further defined as “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association has tips to deal with cyberbullying on its website, but mainly discuss after-the-fact advice such as having adults that you can trust and talk to.

We don’t treat verbal and physical bullying this way. Through elementary to high school, I attended dozens of assemblies about the consequences for bullying. The severe punishments were clear.

Cyberbullying is much harder to punish, especially as it goes on a district-by-district basis. Passed legislation could mean peace of mind for many students and it would untie school teachers’ and administrators’ hands.

We have advanced as a society to the point that physical bullying is unacceptable. Why, then, do we not bring the same policies upon those who would do so through text message or social media?

The only difference is the medium. Cyberbullying is just as bad as bullying that happens face-to-face.

Pennsylvania lawmakers need to realize this. They should be commended for their recent actions to take measures against cyberbullying, but they must continue to push until the bill has passed and students are safe from the looming threat of cyber abuse.

Vince Bellino can be reached at vince.bellino@temple.edu.

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