Ninth-Grader Arrested as Missouri Cracks Down on Cyberbullying

October 17, 2009 08:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The arrest of a student accused of harassing another student through a Web site highlights the hazards of cyberbullying, and the steps that Missouri is taking to better penalize it.

Cyberbullying an Increasing Threat for Teens

A ninth-grade high school student in Missouri was arrested on Thursday for “creating a website that disparaged another teen,” Kim Zetter reports for Wired Magazine. Missouri has become one of the more aggressive states campaigning against teen bullying, particularly on the Web.

The female student responsible for creating the Web site posted photos of a female classmate along with anonymous comments judging the victim for the “male company she kept,” Lt. Andy Binder, a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, told Wired. The author of the posts also wrote that the victim “would be better off if she just died.” 

The perpetrator, whose name has not been disclosed, has been held in a juvenile detention center while juvenile court prosecutors determine whether her actions were indeed criminal. After the 2006 case of Lori Drew, a woman who bullied 13-year-old Megan Meier through a fake MySpace profile, resulting in Meier committing suicide, Missouri schools have “developed a zero-tolerance policy with regard to bullying,” Zetter explains.

April Huddleston, a spokeswoman for Lincoln County R-III School District, tells Wired that the district’s policy for punishing any type of bullying can include “anything from lost privileges all the way up to expulsions.” Although schools have the authority to punish cases of cyberbullying, there is no federal law in existence that would deem such offences to be criminal. As a result, in 2008, Missouri updated a state statute against harassment, “which outlaws threats or harassing communication,” to include “digital communications sent via the computer or text messaging.” By law, these actions can now be charged as misdemeanors or felonies.

Background: Internet harassment and free speech

In May 2008, Missouri resident Lori Drew was indicted in California for violating MySpace’s terms of service. In 2006, Drew had created a fake MySpace profile in order to harass Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who had been in a dispute with Drew’s teenage daughter. A coalition of advocacy groups filed a brief attacking the indictment on free speech grounds.

Drew was convicted on three misdemeanor charges in November 2008, but the federal judge in the case overturned the convictions in July 2009, Kim Zetter reported for Wired. The judge believed convicting Drew could set a dangerous and broad precedent leading to the criminalization of any violation of a Web site’s terms of service.

Reference: Cyberbullying

As the Web site Stop Cyberbullying explains, cyberbullying or bullying through the Web occurs when a “child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.” Just like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can make the victim feel anxious and afraid, and could lead to isolation, depression and even death.

According to experts, cyberbullying is quickly becoming the “fastest-growing form of bullying,” an easy way to hurt and harass peers in an effective and anonymous way, Amy Boerema reported for the Daily Herald. Parents and educators are still unsure as to the best ways to address the problem, which should not be taken lightly.

Related Topic: Parents and teen dating

When it comes to teenagers’ dating habits, parents may think they have all the answers, but it’s more likely they know little about the ways teens initiate and conduct intimate relationships. Technology has changed the way teenagers meet, interact and make plans, and can even turn into dangerous weapons to control a partner without parental knowledge.

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