By Eric Yun
Despite the popular saying, words can cause significant amount of pain. While most people can shrug off an insult shouted on the street, can they shrug off thousands of messages from anonymous people on the Internet?
Ryan Halligan couldn’t. The 13-year-old boy was teased at school about his learning disorder and accusations about being gay. To make matters worse, Halligan was bombarded with messages online, and eventually, he took his own life.
The Internet allows people to do amazing things, but it can be misused to disrupt the privacy and peace of innocent victims. Tyler Clementi was an 18-year-old student starting his first year at Rutgers University. After his roommate and a friend broadcast Clementi’s private sexual life over the Internet, he committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Clementi’s tragic death has New York State and City officials examining cyberbullying and possible legislation to prevent it. At a memorial service held at Washington Square Park, Governor David Paterson pledged he would enact legislation against cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying, as the name suggests, is bullying done through the Internet. There are no shortage of ways to harass someone online: instant messages, chat rooms and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are all used. In a study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center, which was founded by Dr. Sameer Hinduja from Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Justin Patchin from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, 20 percent of kids aged 11 to 18 had experienced some form of cyberbullying.
Currently, more than 40 states—including New York—has legislation to address bully- ing. Of those, about 30 states include a mention of bullying done electronically. New York recently passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which prohibits harassment or discrimination against students on school grounds on the basis of race, gender, reli- gion or sexuality. There was no electronic component to the bill.
Senator Thomas Duane (D- Manhattan), the chief sponsor of the Dignity for All Students bill, has reportedly considered adding an amendment to address cyberbullying.
It would be a welcome addition for Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach). “We certainly have to be aware of the increased nature of cyberbullying,” he said. Addabbo said he hopes that parents begin to realize the dangers of cyberbullying, and he hopes young students “understand
the severity of cyberbullying.”
In the State Assembly, bill A05544 was introduced that would require the commissioner of education to enforce rules that prohibit harassment and bullying of students, including harassment carried out electronically.
“I support all proposals or measures that would increase the awareness and prevention of cyberbullying and other forms of harassment,” said Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) who sponsors the bill.
On the federal level, HR1966, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Act, was proposed to make cyberbullying a crime, but it has stalled over fears that it would impinge on people’s First Amendment rights.
Meier, a 13-year-old from Missouri, was one of the first major cases that brought cyberbullying into the nation’s consciousness. Her neighbor and former friend’s mother Lori Drew created a fake MySpace account to befriend and later torment Meier. She hung herself weeks before her 14th birthday.
Meier’s death prompted the state of Missouri to reactively enact some of the toughest laws against cyberbullying in the nation. Now, after Clementi’s death, New York politicians are looking to prevent a similar tragedy in New York schools.