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Parents rally around bill to protect children from cyberbullying

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 4:23am  ET

Christine McComas (Capital News Service/Julia Maldonado)
Christine McComas, the mother of a 15-year-old girl, Grace, who committed suicide last April after she was bullied online, speaks to the media Wednesday in Lawyer's Mall in Annapolis about her support for an anti-cyber bullying bill introduced this session by Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County. From left to right: Cardin, McComas, Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-Frederick, and Ray Leone, Maryland PTA president-elect. (Capital News Service/Julia Maldonado)

Cyberlbullying can target any child

WTOP's Kate Ryan reports.

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By JULIA MALDONADO
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Under Maryland's current anti-bullying law, it is illegal to send threatening, intimidating emails to minors.

However, "there's no limitation on Facebook or Twitter because of its public nature," Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Cardin is putting forth a bill that would make publicly posted cyberbullying a crime in Maryland, thus closing the loophole that exempts harmful material transmitted via social media websites.

"We want to make sure that our minors are protected," Cardin said, adding that he believes cyberbullying is the next frontier in terms of protecting minors.

The bill would prohibit a person from using electronic communication to publicize certain facts concerning the private life of a minor, disseminate harmful information about a minor, and direct a threat to or make a comment about a minor that would reasonably place the minor in fear of bodily harm or death.

House Bill 396 has received bipartisan support from co-sponsor Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-Frederick, who said hate speech is not covered by the First Amendment, and thus should be addressed by legislators.

"If someone says, 'you should die,' or 'I'm going to kill you,' I think we need to take those words seriously," Afzali said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define electronic aggression as any type of harassment or bul­lying that occurs through email, a chat room, instant messaging, a website, or text messaging. The intentions of the comments are generally to tease, be rude, spread rumors, or instill fear in someone.

In a high-profile case of cyberbullying in Maryland last year, 15-year-old Grace McComas of Woodbine, committed suicide after suffering months of online harassment. She was the victim of harmful tweets, some of which threatened her life.

Her mother, Christine McComas, read aloud some of the tweets that were directed at her daughter.

"I hope you somehow see this and cry yourself to sleep then kill yourself..might as well your just a worthless piece of (expletive)," read one of the tweets.

"I hatehatehatehatehatehatehate you. Next time my name rolls off your tongue, choke on it.. and DIE," another tweet read.

McComas said the family made several public agencies aware of the abuse, but there was either a misunderstanding or they could not intervene.

"There is no litigation. The person is 18 and in college," McComas said, about her daughter's tormenter.

Cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon, however, the growth of social media sites has given perpetrators more public platforms to inflict harm on their victims.

Today's most popular social media site, Facebook, hosted a record 1.06 billion monthly active users last month. Twitter has roughly 500 million total users registered.

A Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project report from 2011 found that 15 percent of social media-using teens have experienced someone being mean or cruel to them personally on a social network site, while 88 percent have witnessed someone being mean or cruel on a social network site.

The dissemination of content online is what researchers at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health believe makes cyberbullying more harmful than in-person bullying.

"It often takes a tangible form in terms of photos or postings, and it can be forwarded to more people," said Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director for education at the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

"A rumor at school does not spread as quickly," Bradshaw said.

The state's passage of the Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005 requires all school districts to provide complaint forms for victims in order to report bullying incidents. But only 7.7 percent of reported incidents in 2011 involved electronic communication -- the lowest number for any type of bullying.

McComas said at an anti-bullying forum at Howard High School last year that while the family was told to fill out a report, her daughter was intimidated and feared retaliation.

The state's last anti-bullying law, signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2008, made Maryland the 11th state to pass legislation that would protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and the seventh to protect students on the basis of gender identity.

Cardin, a candidate for Attorney General, believes this new legislation would create a safer environment for Maryland youth and prevent similar cases, like the McComas', from happening again.

"This bill is the first step in making sure no child ever again chooses suicide as an escape from bullying," Cardin said.

A hearing for the bill is scheduled for March 7.

(Copyright 2013 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)