In recent years, cyberbullying has become something that just a few decades ago was unforeseeable. As such, a local lawmaker has reintroduced a pair of bills — with others expected to follow in the near future — that would make cyberbullying a crime, and establish the framework and penalties for such a crime.
In addition, other legislation introduced by a Democratic state senator would require school boards across the state to adopt specific policies prohibiting cyberbullying within six months of the legislation’s adoption.
State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) introduced House Bills (HBs) 4237 and 4238 last week. Both bills have been sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Brown expressed optimism when asked if the political shakeup in the 2010 mid-term elections would create hurdles for the legislative package.
“I don’t think it matters whose in control when you’re dealing with an issue like this,” she said. “This is something everyone should get behind. In Michigan we can’t prosecute these people the way we should be able to because we don’t have the laws in place.”
HB 4237 would establish definitions of cyberbullying and provide that, if found guilty and under the age of 18, the perpetrator would be subject to a misdemeanor sentence that would include not more than 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. If over 18, a first offense could lead to up to one year behind bars.
If the cyberbullying results in the “serious impairment of a body function,” the responsible party would face up to 5 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. If over 18, the cyberbully could face up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of $10,000.
If the cyberbullying resulting in a suicide, the cyberbully could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 under Brown’s bills. If over 18, the cyberbully could face up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $20,000.
“Obviously as the impact of the bullying gets more and more severe, it makes a difference whether the offender is under 18 or over 18,” Brown said.
The bills would also require that all new teachers sign a statement acknowledging that they are familiar with their district’s new cyberbullying policy, and would expand the usage of the Michigan School Violence Hotline to include the ability to report cyberbullying and mandate that credible reports be shared with the local district administrator, parents of the intended victim, and the parents of the perpetrator, according to a press release.
“As a mother of two girls, the emerging danger of digital abuse sickens me, but also strengthens my resolve to tackle the problem head on,” said state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing), who introduced companion bills in the state’s upper chamber. “I am proud to reintroduce this legislation today that will serve as a step forward in addressing this growing problem within our schools.”
“If it is as significant of a problem, my only question would be, ‘Can you truly prove who actually sent it,’” said state Rep. Bill Rogers (R-Milford), referring to the possibility that someone could send a harmful electronic communication from someone else’s computer or cell phone. “If someone jumped on my computer right now, it should show it came from me.”
State Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield) withheld comment on the bills until they come out of committee, but acknowledged that cyberbullying is a “huge issue.”
Additional legislation as part of the package are expected to be put forward in coming weeks, Brown said.