Maryland’s latest law on cyberbullying could be a national model

Christine and Dave McComas of Howard County waited in line in the Maryland State House, a photo of their 15-year-old daughter Grace cradled in their arms.

They were in Annapolis to attend the ceremony where a bill named for their late daughter was being signed into law.

They stood in the packed Governor’s Reception Room when the bill was called. “Grace’s Law 2.0, Senate Bill 103, House Bill 181!” And with that announcement, the bills were signed into law.

The new law makes cyberbullying that targets a minor a serious offense. Maryland state Sen. Bobby Zirkin explained that a previous version of the bill left open too many loopholes.

Under the previous legislation, penalties would kick in only if the intended victim was the direct recipient of a cyberattack.

Under the new legislation sending out harassing messages to anyone, or a broad audience, would qualify as an offense. The intended victim wouldn’t have to receive the message.

And if the cyberbullying escalates, jail time could result.

“This craziness you see, where people are trying to coax children to commit suicide — you throw that into the mix, and it’s a 10-year sentence now under this law.”

Christine McComas said that the messages her daughter received were relentless, and the 15-year-old Howard County girl took her own life in 2012.

“Adults couldn’t stand it,” she said of the type of messages with which her daughter was barraged, “But children, when they’re just figuring out who they are … ” she said, her voice trailing off.

There were opponents of the bill: The ACLU of Maryland argued the constitutionality of the bill. And, there were concerns about young people who don’t understand the impact that cyber attacks can have on a person’s well-being, and how they should not be penalized so seriously.

Zirkin said that he’s confident that the bill can stand up to legal challenge, and he recalled what struck him about the McComas’ testimony.

“They went to the police; they went to the school; they went to the courts. And, they actually went to the perpetrator’s family. And they got turned away at every point.”

Christine McComas said she wants to deter cyberbullying, but she also wants to educate everyone — adults and children — on the impact of words that are transmitted in cyberspace can carry.

“It matters how you act in public life. It matters what you say to people.”

And, she said she wants everyone to think about how they behave. She’d like to take the negative force of the internet and turn it into a positive.

McComas said, “If you take her name; G-R-A-C-E, it could stand for Give Respect And Compassion to Everyone.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan reported from Annapolis, Maryland.

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