Local suicide tied to cyber bullying

Thursday, December 3, 2009
While Arkansas has made some strides in attempting to combat cyber bullying, many agree the need for more aggressive legislation is needed other than just in the school systems.

The recent suicide of 12-year-old Sarah Butler, a Williford seventh grader has once again brought attention to the need for more aggressive cyber bullying legislation in the state.

Butler, who hung herself after being bullied on a popular social networking site hung herself at her family home Sept. 26 after being harassed by two local youths. Many believe the two should be held accountable in some way for her death.

The girl's mother, Starr Chapps, recently appeared on Region 8 News in an emotional attempt to make the public aware of this growing concern. She said there were no signs of distress prior to her daughter's suicide.

Arkansas is one of many states, who recently passed cyber bullying legislation at the state level, but the jurisdiction over the alleged acts is only governed by school officials, not law enforcement agencies. With technology and Internet use being nearly mandatory for educational purposes, most children and teenagers access the Internet, daily.

Cyber bullying is defined by the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet (CSRIU) as, "being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social cruelty using the Internet or other digital technologies, including cell phones." It also has various forms including both direct and indirect activities to damage or interfere with the relationship of the student being targeted such as posting, impersonation or disseminating personal information or images.

Because it is nearly impossible to govern this type of activity and because it happens both on and off campus, many argue further legislation is needed to prevent the senseless suicides and other forms of violence that can, in turn, result in school violence after children are harmed emotionally by the bullying. Nancy Williard, M.S., J.D, with the CSRIU said the legislation may impose formal discipline when speech or other forms of bullying threaten to cause disruption of the learning process.

Butler's death is not the first youth suicide linked to cyber bullying. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier, of O'Fallon, Mo., killed herself after being bullied on MySpace and numerous others have since been reported bringing the act of cyber bullying to the forefront in both news and other media, forcing the public to take notice and mandate changes.

Meier's mother Tina founded the Megan Meier Foundation and has been instrumental in lobbying to help create more effective laws to address Internet harassment. She addressed a crowd Oct. 13 in Little Rock at the Statewide Law Enforcement Summit. She commended the state of Arkansas on the laws enacted in 2007 that focus on the schools.

These 2007 laws require all public schools to adopt policies to help prevent bullying by electronic means and also address bullying off school property if the act, "was intended with the purpose of disrupting school." Meier was adamant that further laws are needed to help address the problem as well as more education regarding cyber bullying and safe Internet usage by children and teens as well as ways for parents to be more aware of their children's Internet activities.

The state of Arkansas does have criminal laws pertaining to harassing communications, but does not specify the Internet as a form of communication. The offense is also only punishable as a misdemeanor crime. The main issue with creating a law against cyber bullying is the obvious infringement on First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

The cyber bullying law that was passed in 2007 was a struggle. Former State Representative Shirley Walters who sponsored the bill said the American Civil Liberties Union and news agencies were strongly opposed to the bill.

Currently, The Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act has been filed in Congress that, if passed, could impose stronger penalties on this type of harassment, including up to two years in prison for electronic speech meant to, "coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person." Another bill is also currently in Congress that would provide $125 million in grants yearly for programs to educate parents and children against Internet crimes. By providing more education rather than limiting free speech, the ACLU supports the bill, which could be a first step for the much needed legislation.

One of the best ways to prevent bullying of children and teenagers over the Internet is through close parental monitoring of the child's usage as well as installation of various software to help with the issue. The National Crime Prevention Council reports that this type of bullying affects nearly half of all American teens. Many times the perpetrators are not considered mean people when not online and use the Internet as an anonymous way to hurt people, thinking they will not be discovered.

Although cyber bullying can take place on any Web site, the most common are the social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. Although all sites require set up of accounts with a valid e-mail address, Web sites such as Topix allow hateful comments without any sign-up and have shown some prevalence with more cyber bullying.

Some of the red flags described by Nancy Williard, who has degrees in both special education and law and has practiced computer law as well authoring two books on Cyber bullying has devoted her professional attention to issues of youth risk online, include excessive Internet usage, visual emotional distress during and after sessions and excessive secretive behavior.

Wiliard said it is also important for parents to balance supervision with the need for privacy. She said by building positive interactions, children will be more apt to share concerns. She also said if a child does confide in a parent about a potentially hazardous encounter, it is important that the parent does not overreact, this is one of the main reasons teens who have been surveyed report that they do not talk to their parents about this type of issue.

Other tips include imposing consequences in the event a child engages in inappropriate or potentially harmful interactions on the Internet. She said it is also very important to encourage children to network with other children and friends if they hear about or have concerns about things that occur on the Internet.

She also offers numerous tips for teens including, thinking about the consequences of a post before sending the message and avoiding "fantasy love" and staying clear of display ads that require too much personal information. One of the biggest things she encourages is always knowing the people in a social network and not accepting those they do not know, although most cyber bullies are either people one knows or a friend of a friend. By only adding those personally known to the user, it limits the possibilities of outside intruders and can also help in the event of a criminal investigation to identify the person who began the cyber bullying, as was the case in the Butler suicide.

By being good parents and monitoring usage, even to the point of being nosey is the best way to insure the safety of your children while they are online.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: