Proposed law aimed at teens could result in arrests

Published 8:45 am Friday, February 25, 2011

FRANKLIN—At Franklin Public Schools, bullying can earn a student a three- to five-day suspension from school. A second offense results in a 10-day suspension.

And, come July 1, if a student bullies another student via text messaging, that could result in his or her arrest.

Under legislation approved by Virginia’s General Assembly, it would be a misdemeanor to use a cellular telephone or other wireless device to transmit a text message that contains “profane, threatening or indecent language.” The bill targets teenagers engaging in “cyberbullying” via wireless communications. It would add “texting” to Virginia’s obscene phone call statute.

If Gov. Bob McDonnell signs the law, a violator could get up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Although Franklin students must have cell phones turned off and out of sight during school hours, Principal Rodney Berry favors any legislation that will assist school officials with their jobs.

“Cyberbullying” hasn’t been a problem at the high school, Berry said. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen out of school.

“Sometimes we have to deal with some of the residual effects,” Berry said. “I haven’t had any instances of it happening at school. We do not tolerate any bullying in terms of texting students.”

Franklin Police Lt. Tim Whitt said police rarely deal with bullying, but he too favors the proposed law.

“As we all know, children can be very cruel,” Whitt said. “Bullying is what leads to situations such as Columbine and teenagers and young adults committing suicide. It has no place in our society and should be treated as a crime and prosecuted.”

He noted that several states have aggressively attacked bullying and hopes Virginia will do the same.

The Cyberbullying Research Center, an information clearinghouse operated by criminal justice professors in Florida and Wisconsin, defines cyberbullying as “when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.”

About one in five adolescents will be victimized by cyberbullies, according to the center’s research. In extreme cases, authorities say, cyberbullying has driven young people to commit suicide.

Southampton High School Principal Allene Atkinson said students may bring cell phones to school, but they cannot use them or have them out.

“If they do, we take the phone and hold it for a parent to pick up,” Atkinson said.

She too has not experienced “cyberbullying’ in school.

“We try to teach our kids how to behave toward each other,” Atkinson said. “A big part in teaching kids is teaching them how to get along.”

Every once in awhile she hears from a parent, whose child had a problem with bullying outside of school. The parent will notify the school out of concern.

Matt Birch with Capital News Service contributed to this story.