Michigan this month joined the states that have made cyberbullying a crime. Under House Bill No. 5017, someone found guilty of the misdemeanor could face a maximum of 93 days in jail, a fine of $500 or both. If a violator has a prior conviction, they could face up to a year in jail, and/or a max $1,000 fine. If they continue with the behavior, they could face a five year sentence and/or a $5,000 fine.
Everyone wants to ensure that students go through their childhood free from bullying. In any given semester about thirty percent of students are the target of bullying, suffering behaviors that range from exclusion, taunting through to violence. Cyberbullying is carrying out these same actions and threats through your smartphone or tablet or other online devices. All forms of bullying cause significant emotional and in some cases physical suffering too. But is criminalization really the answer?
Our country has had a longstanding love-affair with the courts and the criminal justice system, believing that the bigger the problem, the bigger the legal stick required. The result has been an ever-growing number of teenage behaviors that attract legal consequences. Punitive responses are based on the belief that students involved in bullying lack capacity for positive feeling and are best redirected by the infliction of pain. We live in an increasingly punitive world, and this is reflected in US schools where suspension rates have doubled in the last three decades. However, punishment generally fails to promote character or skill development in the bully, and often leads to retaliation against the target. Beyond this, punitive responses to bullying, such as zero-tolerance policies, security equipment and personnel, disproportionately target students of color, have been found to create harsh school environments that actually cause increases in student aggression, and contribute to a school to prison pipeline.
There are more effective ways to combat cyberbullying that engage the concern for fairness that nearly all youth possess while still holding the perpetrators responsible. No Bully, one of the leading bullying-prevention non-profits nationwide, pioneered an intervention called Solution Team, which leverages the compassion of the students in the victim’s school to take action. Schools trained in running Solution Teams bring together the bullying students with the prosocial students are able to solve 90% or more of the incidents of bullying on their campus. There is growing recognition in schools nationwide that they need a reliable system to de-escalate rather than inflame the bullying and cyberbullying that takes place daily on their campuses.