May 26, 2018
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Make cyberbullying a crime in Maine

By Sofie Mattens and Dan Robbins, Special to the BDN

We all have at least one memory of bullying. Bullies have the ability to discriminate against anybody based on age, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, family status, national origin and all other personal characteristics that identify a person as a unique and special human being. Bullies use these unique and valuable characteristics as ways to call out differences between people and use hurtful, mean language to make others feel ashamed instead of proud.

Both national and local media have given a lot of attention to tragic incidents in which bullying has played a vital part. In 2010, Tyler Clement jumped off a bridge after his roommates broadcast a streaming video of Clement sharing an intimate moment with a friend. In 2011, a Lewiston high school student was beaten severely in the local mall after receiving violent threats on Facebook. Then, more recently, Kitty McGuire, a Maine middle school student from Troy, took her own life after several bullying incidents. These are just some examples of several cases that occurred and that received heavy media coverage.

As society and technology advance, so does bullying. In all three aforementioned incidents, technology was the primary method used to bully. Whether it’s through social networking sites, texts, emails or public posts, technology has created a new medium that allows bullies to intimidate or threaten people.

This use of technology to bully another person is known as cyberbullying. This technology allows them to dodge any chance of being confronted with the direct consequences of their actions because of the anonymity that comes with the Internet.

Also, two of the three previously mentioned victims were members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. According to recent research, 63 percent of gayl students report that they have been bullied at some point in their lifetime. This number goes even higher when considering the entirety of the LGBT population; that number is at 72 percent. LGBT students report being cyberbullied (36.1 percent) almost twice as their non-LGBT peers (20.1 percent).

Federal Bureau of Investigation data indicate that the LGBT population is the minority group most likely to be the target of violent hate crimes in the United States. How many more people need to get hurt or die after enduring attacks in their personal lives?

Currently, 47 states include electronic harassment in bullying laws, whereas only 16 states include specific laws regarding cyberbullying. Twelve states have implemented criminal sanctions against cyberbullying, and five states, including Maine, are proposing to make it a criminal offense. Maine’s LD 1233, “An Act Regarding Cyberbullying,” would make cyberbullying a Class E crime that could lead to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months of jail time.

Under circumstances outlined in the law, repeat offenders would be charged with a Class C crime with a fine of up to $5,000 and up to five years of jail time. Last year, LD 1237, An Act to Prohibit Bullying and Cyberbullying in Schools, was put into law. It’s now getting schools to take action on the issue by creating and implementing anti-bullying policies, which went into effect in January. If LD 1233 passes, we can extend these protections into our larger community.

We cannot deny that harassment through technological devices is a growing issue. Progress is being made by increasing awareness and recognizing that there is a problem. Schools are taking a stand by developing policies to increase awareness about, prevent, and act on bullying and cyberbullying behavior.

We believe that this measure would help break down the wall of anonymity that is currently protecting cyberbullies and would help victims to put a stop to these cruel actions. Legislation in Augusta is opening the debate about increasing protections for victims of cyberbullying. We ask you to contact your legislators and tell them to protect the lives of our youth; tell them to support LD 1233.

Sofie Mattens of Skowhegan and Dan Robbins of Orono are master’s of social work students at the University of Maine.

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