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Should bullies be considered criminals?

7:38 AM, Jun 13, 2012   |    comments
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By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

After Kenneth Weishuhn told classmates at his Iowa high school last winter that he was gay, his family says anonymous voicemail threats began popping up on his cellphone. At school, some of his fellow students yelled anti-gay slurs, and the harassment got so bad that teachers at South O'Brien High School in Paullina, Iowa, began standing guard in hallways. Friends started an online support group for Kenneth, whom they called "K.J." Bullies spammed it, family members say.

On April 15, K.J. hanged himself in the garage of his home in Primghar. He was 14.

K.J.'s suicide generated a rare front-page editorial in the Sioux City Journal, headlined, "We must stop bullying. It starts here. And it starts now." The editorial said bullies' mistreatment of Weishuhn "didn't let up until he took his own life," adding, "We are all to blame. We have not done enough."

Candlelight vigils and rallies for the freshman spread across Iowa, and K.J.'s image served as an onstage backdrop during Madonna's European tour.

Nearly two months later, police are still investigating. O'Brien County Sheriff Michael Anderson said Tuesday that an announcement from the county attorney on whether criminal charges will be filed could come as early as this week.

Tragic suicides such as K.J.'s have galvanized educators into a zero-tolerance stance on bullying, and a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Education shows that state lawmakers nationwide are increasingly willing to criminalize bullying behavior, even as experts wonder whether doing so will have the intended effect: to curb the behavior and improve the learning atmosphere.

As millions of students head off to their summer breaks, they might leave behind the face-to-face bullying that includes everything from simple taunts to brutal beatings, but too often they can't escape the digital world that gives the predators access to their prey day and night and well beyond the schoolyard gates.

Though bullying is as old as classrooms, only in the past decade or so have states moved to address, legislatively, what once was simply the domain of schools. In 1999, only Georgia had an anti-bullying law. Now every state but Montana does. In the past 13 years, states have enacted nearly 130 anti-bullying measures, half of which came since 2008.

Spurred partly by the Columbine shootings in 1999, in which media accounts suggested the perpetrators had been bullied, states began "rapidly" addressing bullying, a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report found. Eighteen states have laws that allow victims to seek legal remedies for bullying, either from schools that don't act or from the bullies themselves. Among other recent trends:

•32 states require that schools have procedures for investigating bullying incidents.
•17 states require that school staff report bullying to a supervisor, much as they report suspected abuse and neglect.
•Nine states require administrators to report bullying to police.
•11 states require that schools allow anonymous reporting of bullying by students.

Russlynn Ali, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, said schools should think hard before turning discipline cases over to police. "It's hugely important to set the (school) culture right and make it safe for all," she said. "That is different from sending children to jail."

Ali said minority students in districts with zero-tolerance policies are frequently punished more severely than other students. She noted new federal data that show that zero-tolerance districts in the 2009-10 school year expelled nearly 30,000 students; 56% were black or Hispanic, though 45% of students enrolled were black or Hispanic.

Even anti-bullying advocates warn that throwing bullies in jail might not be the best remedy. "It's a terrible idea," said Eliza Byard, who heads the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national advocacy group that works on improving the climate at the nation's schools. "Locking children up (and) imposing criminal penalties on children represents a tremendous failure on the part of adults."

Yet in state after state, legislators are stepping forward to address what has been called a national epidemic, one that has gained even greater visibility in recent years as singer Lady Gaga, actress Anne Hathaway and scores of other celebrities have helped to elevate the cause.

Chris Hall, an Iowa state lawmaker from Sioux City, proposed legislation last winter that would require both the bully's and the victim's parents to take part in mediation after a bullying report. If the bully's parents refuse to cooperate, prosecutors could pursue fines or criminal charges, though Hall envisions community service, not jail time, for scofflaw parents. Bringing the parents into the process, Hall says, "helps to connect the dots for a child."

The measure died before getting a hearing, but Hall says K.J.'s suicide, which came at the end of the 2012 legislative session, could make a difference going forward. He plans to reintroduce the legislation in January.

The Prince case
Perhaps the most notorious bullying case in recent years took place in South Hadley, Mass., where on Jan. 14, 2010, Phoebe Prince, also a high school freshman, hanged herself from a stairwell in her home. Police concluded that in the three months before her death, a small group of classmates had relentlessly bullied the 15-year-old.

On March 29 of that year, District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel announced felony criminal indictments against six teens, five of whom were minors. The most serious charge carried a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Two years later, none of the six has gone to trial. Prosecutors dropped statutory rape charges against one teen, and the other five struck plea deals on lesser misdemeanor charges for probation and community service.

Attorney Richard Cole, a Massachusetts school safety consultant who testified last year before a state commission reviewing bullying laws, said Massachusetts has "enough criminal statutes right now for police or prosecutors" to go after bullies. Massachusetts prosecuted Phoebe's case under civil rights law, but a spate of new legislation in other states forces schools to clamp down on bullies with the help of law enforcement.

Though anti-bullying advocates welcome the attention the issue has been getting, they say much of the new legislation doesn't address the underlying psychological issues behind bullying or fund training for teachers, counselors and administrators on what to do when victims come forward. As a result, they say, schools are unprepared to react, even as victims' expectations for justice rise.

"Criminalizing these behaviors is not going to be the most effective thing to prevent them," said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. It's hard to know, she said, whether pursuing criminal charges will prevent bullying or simply "drive the problem underground."

Research shows that children struggling with mental health problems are especially vulnerable to being bullied. Though few would disagree that extreme harassment and intimidation deserve swift punishment, Englander and other experts wonder whether teenagers should be prosecuted if a vulnerable classmate reacts with suicide. "Something in the system fails when children have to resort to extreme violence," she said.

High-profile "bullycide" cases increase the pressure communities feel to punish bullies. An opinion poll conducted in February 2010, weeks after Phoebe's death, found that 61% of Massachusetts voters said school bullying should be a crime.

Byard said sending a bully to jail might seem like the right thing to do, but it's "an easy answer that doesn't work."

She noted that her group's most recent school climate survey in 2009 found that fewer than one in six gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students said teachers or other school staff consistently intervened when homophobic remarks were made in their presence. Criminalizing bullying, she said, is "part of a move to talk only about the individual," not the entire system's response to abusive behavior.

She said states should look to model legislation in Maine, signed last month by Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, that focuses on prevention and training for teachers. The state Legislature passed it with wide margins in both the House and Senate. It provides schools with a clear definition of bullying in an attempt to help teachers figure out how to proceed.

What can be done?
Recent federal statistics show that school has never been a safer place but that bullying remains a persistent problem: The U.S. Department of Education's most recent school crime and safety survey showed that from 2005 to 2009, 28% of middle- and high-school students reported having been bullied in school, and 6% said they were victims of cyberbullying, even as the number of students who said they'd been victims of theft or violent crime dropped. About one in 16 students surveyed said he or she was bullied at school "almost every day." Among seventh-graders, nearly one in 10 was bullied every day.

As in many bullying cases, Phoebe's suicide raised questions about how effective her school had been in keeping her safe. In the fall of 2009, Phoebe, a recent immigrant from Ireland, and her mother talked to school counselors about Phoebe's bullying difficulties in Ireland.

Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the 2002 book Queen Bees & Wannabes, a bestseller about teen girls' relationships that was the basis of the movie Mean Girls, consulted with Scheibel, the district attorney, in Phoebe's case. She said the D.A. "chose very carefully" how she charged the teens. "What I wish she had done was hold the adults responsible."

Wiseman met with teens at Phoebe's school after the suicide and found that quite a few "were really jaded" about the case. "Certainly the adults created the culture in which (bullying) was allowed to thrive."

A consultant to schools trying to address bullying, Wiseman said students often tell her that administrators turn a blind eye to complaints if eyewitnesses aren't present. She regularly meets parents who "get crazy-angry" because their kids' bullying complaints go unheeded.

"They feel like they're sending their child into a system that's supposed to keep them safe, but it's actually the biggest risk to their child's safety," she said.

Though Phoebe's case didn't send anyone to prison, it had the intended effect, said Cole, the Massachusetts attorney. None of the six students returned to the school. The case "definitely acts as a deterrent to others." Cole and other civil rights experts worry about dragging too many young people into court, but he says, "There absolutely are times when you need to get the criminal justice system involved."

K.J.'s mother, Jeannie Chambers, isn't so sure. Though police and the county prosecutor won't talk about the case, Chambers says she doubts anyone will be charged. In fact, she told police she didn't want anyone going to jail for K.J.'s death. "I just didn't want somebody else's family to suffer," she said Monday.

Four classmates were disciplined for anti-gay bullying directed at K.J. before his death. Chambers said that she believes their behavior directly contributed to his suicide but that the four have already been subjected to withering criticism from classmates. Chambers told police she hoped the students received counseling, not jail time. "I didn't want somebody else to - how do I say it? - go through what my son went through."

Echoing Hall's proposed legislation, Chambers said parents need to be held accountable for their children's hateful behavior. "A lot of people don't understand: These kids learned it from home."

USA TODAY

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