2 Pa. Bills Aim to Make Teens Think Twice Before Cyberbullying

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 25 | Posted Mar. 30, 2011

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By now, Tina Meier’s story is well-known: In 2006, the Missouri native’s 13-year-old daughter Megan hanged herself after being bullied on MySpace by a neighbor—the mother of one of the teen’s schoolmates and former friends—who created a fake profile to torment Megan. At the time, there was no specific law dealing with that kind of situation, so the mother ultimately escaped prosecution.

Gasps and tears from parents and educators filled the auditorium of Neshaminy High School in Bucks County last Wednesday as Meier recounted the events that led to her daughter’s suicide. The emotional, hour-long presentation marked the launch of CyberSafe Philly, a series of 10 Verizon-sponsored summits—of which Meier is the keynote speaker—happening at area schools over the next two months.

“Do I think kids need to understand there are consequences, that there are devastating things that happen out of the things they do and say through technology? Absolutely,” says Meier, who played a key role in getting a Missouri cyberbullying law passed in 2007.

Since losing her daughter, Meier has become one of the nation’s most potent crusaders against cyberbullying and sexting—the transmission of nude or semi-nude photos to someone else via cell phone, computer or other electronic device. Sexting has become a chief component of cyberbullying because such photos often turn into instruments of blackmail or harassment. Her extended visit to Philadelphia comes at a time when Pennsylvania is poised to join about 20 states that have already criminalized the act of minors engaging in sexting and/or cyberbullying.

Because there are currently no sexting or cyberbullying laws on the books in Pennsylvania, district attorneys have wide latitude when it comes to prosecuting minors. Everything from simple harassment to possession or distribution of child pornography has been in play.

Two Pennsylvania lawmakers—Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Bucks/Montgomery)—have each introduced legislation in the past two months that would provide clearer guidelines for prosecutors by establishing sexting (and in the case of Greenleaf’s bill, nonsexual cyberbullying as well) by minors as a second-degree misdemeanor.

There are similarities between Grove’s House Bill 815 and Greenleaf’s Senate Bill 850. Both lawmakers anticipate that minors convicted on a second-degree misdemeanor would likely not face jail time, but instead be placed in a diversion program and hit with community service, fines and forfeiture of the electronic device used to do the sexting. Both bills also provide for swift expungment of criminal sexting records following completion of the sentence. But one profound difference jumps out. Take, for example, this common scenario: A girl takes a nude photo of herself with her camera phone and sexts it to her boyfriend. The relationship falls apart, and the boy retaliates by forwarding the photo all over school, humiliating the girl. Under Greenleaf’s bill, the boy could be charged with the misdemeanor, but not the girl. Under Grove’s bill, however, both the boy and the girl could be charged.

“It’s an issue I have been struggling with,” says Grove, who introduced a similar bill last year that passed in the House but failed to get through the Senate. “My heart does go out to the victim, [but] by her sending that [photo] to him, she now broke the law and she’s also the victim. It’s a unique, hard situation, but if she sent it to him, she’s responsible for her own actions.”

Grove believes his bill gets to the root of the problem: The creation of the photo in the first place. “I don’t accept [sexting] as normal child behavior. At some point you have to draw a line … and say, ‘We’re not going to accept this.’ This is about child pornography. It’s about us as a society deciding what is child pornography.” Grove argues that sexts frequently end up in the hands of adult sexual predators. “We’re inadvertently creating child pornography to fuel an illegal industry.”

That approach doesn’t sit well with Riya Shah, staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, who believes Grove’s bill doubly victimizes the minor who creates the sext. “We hear the horrific stories about the kids who hurt themselves because they’ve sent a photograph to somebody and it’s gone public and they’re humiliated or being bullied by it, so by prosecuting that person who sent the photograph, you’re not accomplishing anything,” she says, adding that she supports criminalizing the boy’s actions in the aforementioned scenario.

Dr. Rollyn Ornstein, a Hershey-based pediatrician who has advised the JLC on the sexting issue, disputes Grove’s assertion that consensual sexting is aberrant behavior. “I’m not advocating [sexting], but it falls under the rubric of normal, healthy teenage sexual development. Now we just have all this technology to do it with. Kids need to be educated about how far it can go and how it can be harmful.”

The JLC is throwing its weight behind Greenleaf’s proposed legislation, which Shah says is “a much more thoughtful and understanding response to the issue.”

“It clearly provides an offense that is measured in nature and addresses not all sexting, but sexting that’s not consensual, sexting that’s intended to harm or hurt another person,” Greenleaf says of his bill, which is scheduled for Senate consideration on April 12. “I’m very reluctant to create new crimes, particularly for juveniles, but in this case we’re trying to protect them [with] an appropriate way to deal with this matter.”

Grove and Greenleaf believe that some form of sexting/cyberbullying legislation will end up on Gov. Corbett’s desk by the end of the year. Which is what Tina Meier’s hoping for. “Parents need to take the lead in educating and warning kids about these things, but states need to do something, too,” she says. “Otherwise it’s like ‘If no one’s really gonna do anything to us, then what’s to stop us?’ We have to have laws in place.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 25 of 25
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1. Frank from phila. said... on Mar 30, 2011 at 07:28AM

“educate your own kids get involed with their lifes dont let tv ( jersey shore, skins) raise them!!!!!!!! government is bogged down with enough things they cant handle!!!!!!!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Mar 30, 2011 at 10:47PM

“Bullying should NOT be limited to teens and the internet. There are more crime with voilence than against many other than suicide alone. This topic has been on the board for yearsssssss and nothing has been done. DO NOT LIMIT THIS BILL TO THE CYBER WORLD AND SUICIDES as many other have paid the priceless for the bullying that occurs in the work place, schools, streets etc.... MAKE A LAW FOR BULLYING period, no matter the means inwhich it is done and it to be for all ages, sexes, races etc...

STOP BULLYING period”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 14, 2011 at 11:09AM

“hi”

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4. Ryan said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 09:49AM

“Bullying is bad.

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5. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 09:50AM

“im 15 and i think this is wrong because i have been cyber bullyed and yes it got to the point when i was about to do the same but you got to stick through it

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6. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 10:32AM

“dfghjkertyuiertyuio34567io345ty6ui4567i8dfghjcvbnm,wefrgthjkrfghjkkerthyju at your mom i com”

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7. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 10:33AM

“this is terrible

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8. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 10:34AM

“I've been bullied. Not as bad as I just read. But, I've gotten through it.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:39PM

“never gonna give you up never gonna let you down never turn around and desert you


you have been ric rolled thank you”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:40PM

“hi peeps

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11. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:42PM

“you are so awsome

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12. Mark said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:43PM

“hi

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13. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:43PM

“hi jason”

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14. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:43PM

“hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii jjjjjj”

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15. Mark G. said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:44PM

“he be climbin in ur windows snatchin ur ppl up tryin to r**e em so u got hide ur kids and hide ur wife”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:45PM



TJ TJ TJ TJ TJ TJ”

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17. tj said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:47PM

“mark is dumn”

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18. mark said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:50PM

“brad is dumb”

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19. jason said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:53PM

“i like pie”

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20. Philadelphia Weekly Ambassadors said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 01:58PM

“You guys should not be on this site during school times, I will track your messages down and address your school district's super intendents about this and I could have you students suspended. You might be surprised if your not in school on Friday.”

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21. mark said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 02:05PM

“it was mike

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22. Anonymous said... on Mar 6, 2012 at 09:13PM

“i dont think that a person should be charged for showing picture of themself. The boy should be the only one charged with this. Were all teenagers and there are time that we want to see thing and do thing and most of us are all gulity of it; However that should not be an excused to be a slut or a whore. Now about the whole second degree misdermenor i think that a resonable thing if someone has not killed themsevles over it. Why should someone only walk away with such a lite slap if someone been killed because of them. Why should they not serve time for the murder that they have done. They did not create the more dircectly but they had commited the muder indirctly which should still be a felony. It should also be a punshedment of five years in prison. Since manslatuter is seven year i think it should just be a little less. However dont quote me on what i said i am not a lawyer i am a teenager who just read alot of they law and right to a human”

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23. Anonymous said... on Mar 25, 2012 at 12:57PM

“Listen up Philadelphia Weekly Ambassador's. We were on this website because we were doing research on bullying laws for a project in Computer Science. You should know that kids now have computer's. We learn. I bet you never did that as a kid. So you can't do anything about it.

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24. Bryan said... on May 16, 2012 at 08:49AM

“good i guess for a computer class”

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25. RightNowAgainstBullying said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 12:12PM

“This post is more evidence that bullying is a national tragedy affecting young people across America and throughout Pennsylvania.

We all need to take action against the source of bullying and let kids, parents, teachers, principals and politicians know that bullying is NOT okay. We all need to do something to make a difference.

An amazing young singer-songwriter named Becca Levy is doing just that.

She has started a music based anti bullying group called Right Now.

Here’s a link to her video for a cover of “Right Now” by Van Halen. The purpose of the video is to promote awareness to kids using both music and the Internet. The video begins with a public service announcement and is full of statistics that people of all ages need to see.

Becca lives in Washington, D.C. and just turned sixteen years old.

http://www.rightnowagainstbullying.com”

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