Bullying used to be standard hazard of growing up. Now it can be a criminal offense. In part due to publicized cases of teenagers taking their own lives due to bullying, Massachusetts has adopted laws to protect kids who are being bullied. As a result, name calling, teasing, and taunting between children which can be perceived as bullying, could lead to criminal charges.
Dhar Law, LLP is a premier Boston firm that provides assertive legal defense for those accused of cyber-bullying. Contact our lawyers today at 617-391-0592.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is the unwanted, aggressive behavior among children that involves a power imbalance. Often times, the behavior is repeated over time. Examples of bullying could include making threats, spreading rumors, physical or verbal attacks, or purposely excluding someone from a group.
School Bullying Prohibited
Massachusetts General Law prohibits bullying on school grounds. Specifically, bullying is defined as the repeated use of verbal or written expression, or a physical act directed at a victim that:
causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim's property;
places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property;
creates a hostile environment at school for the victim;
infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or
materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.
Incidents of cyberbullying are more common now, with nearly all school-aged children online and active on social media. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts defines cyberbullying as "bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communications." This includes signs, signals, writing, images, sounds or data through wire, radio, email, internet communications or instant messages.
Cyberbullying also includes the creation of a web page or blog in which the creator assumes the identity of another person; or the knowing impersonation of another person as the author of posted content or messages.
Congress introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act in 2009, but the law was not enacted. The act was named for a Missouri teenager who committed suicide after a MySpace hoax ended in bullying messages from a supposed 16-year-old boy, who was actually the mother of one of the girl's former friends.
Every member of a school staff is required to immediately report any instance of bullying or retaliation they witness or become aware of. This includes teachers, school nurses, cafeteria workers, coaches, custodians and even bus drivers. If the school principal determines that bullying has occurred, they are to notify law enforcement, take disciplinary action, and notify parents of both the perpetrator and the victim.
Bullying and CyberBullying Penalties
The prohibition on school bullying has a provision for notifying local law enforcement when the principal has a reasonable basis to believe that criminal charges may be pursued against the aggressor. The disciplinary action a school can take will vary depending on the nature of the alleged bullying, provided the disciplinary actions balance the need for accountability with the need to teach appropriate behavior. It could involve a simple meeting with parents, detention, suspension, or even expulsion.
The Massachusetts stalking and criminal harassment laws can apply to bullying, as the willful and malicious pattern of conduct over a period of time directed at a specific person, which seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. This includes electronic harassment that would be considered cyberbullying.
As criminal harassment, bullying could be punishable by up to 2 ½ years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. A subsequent conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
Federal Anti-Discrimination Bullying
Although there are no specific federal laws to address bullying, some bullying may trigger school responsibilities under federal anti-discrimination laws. Federal civil rights laws prohibit harassment based on race, color, national origin, disability or sex. Bullying which implicates such discrimination is a federal civil rights violation, and schools have an obligation to resolve this harassment. If students are bullied for being gay, lesbian or transgender, which creates a hostile environment at their school, this type of bullying may be considered a Title IX violation.
Defenses to Bullying Charges
The defenses available to charges of bullying will depend on the specific situation. What some people see as bullying, others may see as simply joking around or innocent teasing. In other cases, alleged bullying may be protected free speech.
At Dhar Law LLP in Boston, our attorneys have experience defending people accused of bullying or cyberbullying. We will do an in-depth investigation & review all available electronic records in order to develop a defense strategy to fight your charges. Call 617-391-0592 to speak with our law firm today.