It can be difficult to legislate against teasing, commonly seen as a rite of passage for children, but when the teasing devolves into something much worse and even dangerous, it is appropriate for lawmakers to respond.
Such is the case following last September's suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay Williamsville North freshman, who repeatedly discussed being bullied on his blog.
The tragic circumstances surrounding his death raised the American consciousness on the topic of bullying and what it means in the Internet age.
It also made clear the 2010 Dignity for All Students Act, heralded at the time as a major step against bullying, didn't go far enough in addressing bullying through new technology, including text messaging, email and social media. And, critics say, it didn't specifically use the term "bullying," instead opting to focus on "harassment."
After a two-month investigation by Amherst police, officers said the types of behavior they found that led to Jamey's suicide would not have counted even as misdemeanors, much less felonies, under current law.
That's why bills introduced by State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, and State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, should win support.
The bills are an effort to root out the worst of the abusive behavior enabled by the new communications technology. This includes various forms of taunting, threatening, tormenting, intimidating, insulting and humiliating behavior. The bills also target the dissemination of embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs, either actual or modified, of a minor, or disseminating the private, personal or sexual information, whether factual or false, of a minor.
Those knowingly violating the provisions will be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year imprisonment.
Alyssa Rodemeyer, herself still a teenager at 17, recently sat down with a News reporter and bravely discussed finding Jamey hanging in the back yard. Since that awful day, both she and her parents, Tracy and Timothy Rodemeyer, haven't hesitated in their anti-bullying advocacy.
Alyssa is promoting the Monster March Against Bullying event scheduled for October. She has appeared with talk show host Anderson Cooper, spoken at vigils and rallies and helped pop star Lady Gaga launch the Born This Way Foundation. She has worked with other teens, including Williamsville North graduate Brittany Lavonier, to persuade state lawmakers to strengthen cyberbullying legislation.
Corwin and other legislators are listening and responding. The Clarence lawmaker said that if the initial cyberbullying legislation passes both houses, she plans to propose an amendment incorporating some of Alyssa's suggestions, such as expanding the law to abusive communications disseminated through any electronic devices, including cellphones, and tougher penalties for repeat offenders.
For Alyssa and others, the campaign against bullying isn't getting easier, but through their unselfish pursuit of stronger laws, the lives of countless children should get better.