Making It A Crime Won’t End The War On Bullying But Carson City Wants To Try Anyway

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Boy with stop bullying on handsCarson City, California is set to vote on a measure that would leave children as young as five open to facing stiff fines and potential misdemeanor charges for bullying. Preliminary approval was given this week and if approved, the ordinance would target students ages five to 18 who have made another person feel “terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested.” Now, I’m all for anti-bullying measures, but this is extreme and poorly executed. Not only does this measure ignore the actual causes of bullying (and might actual make the problem worse), but the way it’s worded leaves a lot of room for discrimination on the part of the police officers who will enforce it.

According to The Daily Breeze, the final vote for this measure will take place on May 20th. First time offenders could be fined $100 in addition to an infraction (though the original proposal left even first time offenders open to a misdemeanor), with $200 plus an infraction for the second offense. Third time offenders would face a potential misdemeanor. Councilman Mike Gipson, who introduced the ordinance, had this to say:

“I know that people don’t want to hear the word misdemeanor, and I also know that something needs to happen relating to kids preying on other children,” said Gipson, who is running for a state Assembly seat in the June primary election. “That’s not right. If a child is bullying someone and a parent has to pay a $100 fine as a result of that, a responsible parent will realize their child needs some help.”

The Daily Breeze also spoke to Lt. Arthur Escamillas, who questioned whether this anti-bullying ordinance would be enforceable at all. According to Escamillas, misdemeanors and infractions are rarely given out unless a crime is specifically witnessed by a law enforcement officer:

“A fitness hearing would be required to try a child as a criminal,” Lt. Arthur Escamillas told the newspaper. “But if you see a 4-year-old riding a bike down the street without a helmet, are you going to give a 4-year-old a ticket? It’s discretionary.” Whether officers cite and charge children with misdemeanors for bullying will have to be decided by the Sheriff’s Department leadership, Escamillas said.”

Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes supported the anti-bullying ordinance only after the council agreed to reduce the severity of the penalty to an infraction for the first and second violations. But she still obviously holds misgivings about how the measure will be enforced:

“I’m a mother, and I think I’m in favor of this but I would not want to go to court for a 5- or 10-year-old and say: ‘You’re charged with a misdemeanor,’ ” Davis-Holmes said. “We’re creating another problem here by saying it’s a misdemeanor. Then we’re saying it’s at the discretion of an enforcing officer (to charge the child criminally), but he might be wearing a (white extremist) hood. I want to pass it, but I don’t want to put this label on young people.”

I think Davis-Holmes hit the nail on the head here. First of all, seems to me that labeling an elementary school kid with a misdemeanor for bullying could be a good way to set them up for a lifetime of hardship and jail time. Secondly, this measure just seems rife with the potential for misuse and abuse by law enforcement officers. With no clear standards on who gets a misdemeanor and who gets a slap on the wrist, who do you think will see the brunt of this ordinance, the actual bullies or the more vulnerable students (ie: minorities, LGBT students, immigrants, etc.)?

This is the problem with criminalizing bullying. Pursuing criminal charges against a 5-year-old seems pretty pointless, since at that age it’s often the parent’s issues which are causing the problem, not the child’s. Not only that, but I could see how the added financial burden of the fines might actually make the problem worse, not better. All in all, I think these lawmaker’s hearts are in the right place, but until you can ensure that such a measure won’t be abused or make the problem worse, I think they should vote no. Making bullying a crime is NOT going to end the war on bullying. If you want an example of what will happen, just look at the war on drugs.

(Photo: Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock)