Attempts to address the already high-profile problem of cyber-bullying in New Jersey’s schools could intensify dramatically under a bill making its way through the state Senate.
The bill sponsored by state Sens. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) would essentially criminalize online harassment and other intimidation, whether by adults or minors, adding the new crime of “cyber-harassment” to the books.
The bill was endorsed unanimously by the Senate budget committee last week. An Assembly bill has yet to be heard in committee.
Much of the attention of the bill has been on actions by adults and proposed penalties of as much as five years in prison. The law would apply not only to harassment online, but also to the transmission of lewd or obscene materials.
But the stakes would be high for minors, too, with rules that are only slightly different, although the sanctions for minors call as much for counseling as incarceration.
The bill would also hold parents accountable to some extent for the first time, requiring them to attend counseling, as well, or face their own penalties.
Either way, the bill would significantly ramp up attention to the issue, say its sponsors, and help close a loophole in current law.
“We’re taking into account that kids will be kids,” said Norcross in an interview. “But when it crosses the line to the where the intention is to commit harm, it’s not a matter anymore of kids just arguing online anymore.”
“We’ve heard the stories nationwide, and the fact of the matter, as the technology has grown, we have not kept up with it,” he said.
A key amendment made to the Senate bill last week added that the person knowingly intended to cause harm to the victim or create a fear of harm, either physically or emotionally.
The extent of cyber-bullying among children is hard to gauge, authorities say, because while some of it is reported, much of it is not.
The latest statistics released this week by the state Department of Education in its annual school violence report said that New Jersey schools reported 1,093 incidents of harassment either online or through other electronic means in 2012-13.
The number represents a slight drop from the 1,392 online incidents reported the year before, the first year of the state’s new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which placed new procedures and timelines in place for all incidents of bullying and harassment in schools.
Overall, the online incidents last year represented 14 percent of the total number of bullying and harassment incidents reported in schools.
But that may only hint at the extent of the problem. Various advocacy groups have said many incidents are not reported at all. According to Internet Safe Child, a Camden County organization involved in crafting the bill, half of all teenagers face some form of harassment online and only one in 10 teens tells his or her parents about it.
“There is a wild west out there,” said Russell Depersia, a Camden attorney involved with the organization, who testified before the Senate budget committee. “If you put something on Facebook or Twitter, it doesn’t go away. You have to be held accountable for that.”
He and others said that New Jersey does not have a specific statute addressing online harassment, and that even if the new statute means a juvenile offender ends up with a light punishment, the impact would be lasting.
“Even if it’s a first offender and an appearance in juvenile court, that’s not a small thing,” Depersia said. “All of a sudden, you are before a judge.”
And then there’s the provision that would have an impact on parents. For children under 16, the minimum sentencing would require juveniles to attend a training program or counseling to address the behavior – accompanied by their parents. If a parent did not attend, they could face a disorderly persons charge.
Some have argued that parents should be held more accountable for the actions of their children. Depersia said this was a start in that regard.
“ I think that’s enough to be a bite on the parents,” he said.