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What are legal options for cyber-bullying victims?

Published On: Dec 24 2013 11:25:50 AM CST
Updated On: Oct 22 2013 11:19:25 AM CDT
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Thierry Roge/Reuters

By Judge Thomas A. Jacobs, Special to THELAW.TV

The Internet has given the traditional schoolyard bully an opportunity to become a cyber-bully. Cyber-bullying is defined as the use of electronic communication to convey intimidating or harassing messages. This can be done through email, text, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

The majority of states have laws against cyber-bullying or what's called electronic harassment. Schools are mandated to implement anti-bullying policies and some are authorized to discipline students who violate the rules. Most teenagers are skilled users of all things digital. Their parents, however, fall behind when it comes to evolving technologies. If a student becomes a target of a cyber-bully, what can be done? What legal options are available to the student and parents?

The victim and his or her parents can and should take action. Ignoring the bully will not put an end to the attacks and they can grow into a cyber-mob. If the bully is known, the parents may attempt to discuss the situation with him and his parents. The parents should also notify the principal with a request that the school's bullying policies be adhered to. Schools have addressed cyber-bullying of classmates and teachers through suspension and expulsion in the appropriate case.

Schools are charged with providing a hostile-free learning environment and failure to do so may have legal consequences. Some recent cases have resulted in civil lawsuits brought against the bully, parents, school districts and administrators. Depending on the facts of the case, a variety of legal theories may be pursued including negligence, physical or mental harm, invasion of privacy, defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Another way to deal with a cyber-bully is to seek an Order of Protection from a court. Sometimes referred to as a restraining order or injunction, a violation of the order may result in contempt and possible jail time. The order can restrict a person from all contact with another person or set limitations on the type of contact, frequency and location. Once in place, a protective order will last a specified period of time but may be renewed if necessary.

Finally, if the acts of the bully constitute a crime under relevant statutes, the police may become involved. Crimes including intimidation, threatening, harassment, stalking or impersonation may be filed against the bully in juvenile or adult court. Penalties for conviction include probation, community service, counseling, jail or prison.

It is also possible for the parents of the bully to be prosecuted if their behavior contributed to the acts of their child. For example, as this article is being written, an investigation is underway in Lakeland, Fla., regarding the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick in September 2013. Two young girls have been charged with aggravated stalking and the parents of one may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Speaking of suicide, the bullycide phenomenon is a global concern. Too many teens turn to their friends or remain silent when cyber-bullying starts. Some take their lives out of fear, frustration and loneliness. No parent should lose a child on account of the digital antics of a few. Parents must be vigilant by not looking the other way and understand that cyber-bullying is a health issue as well as a legal one. They need to know their kids' passwords to all of their accounts and monitor them regularly. Age appropriate trust must be built between parent and child so that the teen knows they can tell their parents if cyber-bullying occurs, without fear of losing their cell phone or Facebook account. Netiquette should be an ongoing conversation among family members.

The author, Judge Thomas H. Jacobs, was an Arizona assistant attorney general from 1972–1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers and judges through his books published by Thomson West and Free Spirit Publishing, Inc. He also writes regularly for teens, parents, and educators on youth justice issues while answering readers’ questions at his website AsktheJudge.info.

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