No, Florida, Putting Kids in Jail Isn’t the Solution for Bullying

Written by Nicole Flatow

A Florida bill advanced in the Senate this week to make bullying a crime, including cyber-bullying online. The new offenses criminalize a range of “harassing” behavior, both in-person and on the Internet. And a second conviction would send perpetrators to jail for a year, criminalizing what is primarily a problem among youths.

The bill comes in response to concerns of escalating bullying, especially cyberbulling, and is named for 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide in September 2013, after two teen peers allegedly harassed her over her dating of a particular boy. While Rebecca’s case did not involve LGBT harassment, bullying has been a particular concern among LGBT youth.

The bill establishes that someone who “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly harasses or cyberbullies another person commits the offense of bullying” — a misdemeanor — and that those who engage in such harassment accompanied by a threat are guilty of a third-degree felony.

The proposal moves to criminalize more youth behavior, even as Florida has made efforts to move away from a trend of criminalizing school misbehavior and giving kids an early introduction to the criminal system in what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Saddling kids with arrests, suspensions, and particularly juvenile detention for misbehavior has found to only exacerbate later behavior, and increase the likelihood that they will later commit other crimes.

These “zero tolerance” school policies that impose harsh punishment for misbehavior mete out punishment disproportionately not just on racial minorities, but also on lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, who are over-represented in the juvenile justice system. A recent Center for American Progress report finds that these overly punitive disciplinary policies are as detrimental if not moreso to LGBT youth as the bullying itself.

But Florida would not be the first to respond to escalated attention to bullying with criminalization and other punitive sanctions. The vast majority of states — 42 — have passed some sort of bullying law, and 24 of them rely solely on punitive measures, rather than training, counseling and other rehabilitative approaches. Fifteen state laws include procedures for imposing criminal sanctions, and eight have “created new crimes or modified existing ones, to include bullying behavior,” according to the Advancement Project. As the organization explains in a report on why this trend is counter-productive:

So-called “bullies” are, of course, youth themselves, and are thus struggling with their own insecurities – about their intelligence, social skills, physical attractiveness, attraction to others, gender expression, etc. – and are often just learning to understand themselves and the world around them. They are themselves frequently victims of messages of intolerance, hostility, and hate at home, at school, and from the media. [...]

Indeed, zero-tolerance responses can actually have the unintended effects of strengthening a bully’s resolve and further victimizing the recipient of his or her aggression.

Among the laws passed in the last few years are a Maryland law that made cyberbullying a misdemeanor in May 2013, also punishable by a year in jail. The year before that, North Carolina made it a crime for students to harass their teachers online.

These laws supplement existing provisions that address the most egregious behavior — particularly for adults harassing juveniles — including stalking, assault, and even child pornography.

Florida, where the bill passed a Senate committee this week, has been known over the past few years for arresting more students than any other state, for violations that include trespassing at their own school.

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress

Photo credit: Thinkstock

125 comments

Carol P.
Carol P.2 years ago

Ugh. Considering that most bullies are only exhibiting learned behaviors from their own lives, this sounds as if it could have really negative consequences.

angela l.
angel l.2 years ago

Kids who bully other kids or even adults, are so insecure of themselves and jealous of others to cause them to be aggressive so they bully their way in to make themselves look better. It has to do with families background of how they are raised including their parents. Bullying has always been around even my time. There were a many in my class who were so mean to me and I finally stood up for myself instead of going to the teachers or principal, nor my parents. I fought back and now that we'd grown up, for some reasons, a few apologized to me about how ignorant they were. Not many of us stay in contact but they became the society's good citizens, have a good job and raise a family of their own. Of course, back in the days, children were not as bad as now,carried knives and shortguns all the time, although there were fighting with knives but no life taken. If we all have respect to each other and schools should have a class in manners and behavior can help to cope changes in the society and lifestyle, lots of love instead of materializing this generation, we just have to make this happen - CHANGE!!!

Vicky P.
Vicky P.2 years ago

thanks

Rhonda B.
Rhonda B.2 years ago

Thank you.

Helen Krummenacker

The main problem is, real bullies are often much smarter at working the system than their victims, and might well try to get the victim prosecuted.

Marianne B.
MARIA B.2 years ago

If someone said to my daughter "why don't you just drink some bleach and die'..They were tried to be held accountable for Becca's death, but are scot free. i wish they had gotten some jail time. They tortured her verbally for months, before she died. She was just a beautiful 12 year old. Come on people, put yourself in her and her mother's place.

Sean Goldberg
Tonya lee2 years ago

Florida is the new Mississippi

Fern D.
Fern D.2 years ago

There's no reason the sob story of the bully should have more weight than the trauma that the bully's victims have to endure. The priority should always be to protect those who are peacefully attempting to secure an education at school. If that means the bully is relegated to some other institution, we all come out ahead. Some people have messed-up heads, and bending over backwards to suit them when they act out is the opposite of positive problem-solving.

Arild Warud
Arild Warud2 years ago

WTF.

Val M.
Val M.2 years ago

Rehabilitation is preferable to punishment.