DENVER – Conjuring images of the film “Carrie” and the pain of being tormented by high school bullies, teenagers shared with a House panel their stories of harassment from cyberbullies prompting passage of a bill to criminalize the online behavior.
In today’s world, mean-spirited pranks have escalated to hateful messages, images and videos that are broadcast anonymously and globally through cyberspace and can’t be erased. The victims can change schools – but they fear the demeaning posts on the Internet will follow them.
House Bill 1131 sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) would define cyberbullying – conveyed via Internet websites, phone texts and emails – as a criminal misdemeanor offense and impose penalties.
The House Education Committee passed the bill to the Appropriations Committee, which will likely advance the measure to the House floor.
“Bullying is no longer just in our playgrounds – bullying has gone high-tech,” said Fields. “Bullying will never stop if we just stand by and do nothing.”
“Our children, our youth, need to be free from fear,” declared Fields.
At least 20 percent of all middle and high school students are victimized by cyberbullies, and the stigma and pain has become a cause of teen suicides.
Numerous teenagers bravely testified for more than two hours about their experiences of being abused by cyberbullies and their struggle against depression and thoughts of suicide.
“I’m not yet 18 but I’ve been to 10 schools in my lifetime,” said Bailey, a high school senior in Littleton. “I had to change schools because of bullying.”
“They called me a squirrel,” Baily said of Internet bullies. The demeaning comments escalated to bullies posting videos of “squirrels being blown up or just being killed. They said things like ‘I wish this would happen to the squirrel at our school.’”
Several students recalled deploring messages saying that they should just die.
After two years of being bullied, 14-year-old Ashley Berry said, “I went into a complete form of depression where I didn’t talk to anyone” and didn’t want to go to school.
Like other bullied victims, Ashley said there were no school teachers, counselors or principals to help her. Ashley finally did talk with her parents and she now speaks out against cyberbullying across the country.
Heidi, a junior at a Fort Collins high school, said she was shocked to find her Facebook photo posted on another website page called, “an album of sluts.” She was one of hundreds of victimized girls whose photos were plastered on a website claiming they have sexually transmitted diseases.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation last year, but only one 18-year-old Poudre High School student was charged with misdemeanor harassment.
Cyberbullies degrade girls based on their looks and clothing, harass boys by questioning their sexual orientation, and pick on students for making high grades, said Rhonda Williams, a University of Colorado-Colorado Springs professor.
District Attorney George Brauchler of the 18th Judicial District said the proposed legislation “gives me an extra tool that I don’t have right now” to prosecute cyberbullies or work toward rehabilitation.
Brauchler, the father of four preteen daughters, said he believes the bill would allow him and law enforcement to work with the youth offenders and their parents to find a resolution or else move the problem into the juvenile justice system.
Matthew Durkin, deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal justice section, said his office supports the bill.
“You’ve heard so many stories of courage of young people who have just been absolutely tortured and they had to go through hell,” said Durkin. “These acts are huge and they have consequences.”