A Rutgers University freshman jumps to his death off the George Washington Bridge after an intimate moment with a romantic partner is recorded and broadcast over the Internet by his roommate. A 13-year-old girl hangs herself in her bedroom closet after being slandered on Myspace by a friend, the friend’s parent, and the parent’s employee who collectively pretend to be a male peer in order to befriend her. Every month the news includes stories of predators posing as teens in order to pursue adolescent boys and girls over the Internet and lure them to hotel rooms across state lines.
While these stories, in their graphic nature, may seem to be the drastic exception to harmless and mundane online activity, they are the stuff of cybercrimes, a term that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. But the onset of technology, and specifically the advent of social media, have revealed an inherent vulnerability that is especially dangerous for teenagers who, in many cases, lack the tools, the knowledge–and the confidence–to cope with the dangers, both physical and psychological, that can come their way.
The statistics are alarming.
- a bullied child’s risk of suicide is five times greater than that of a child who hasn’t been bullied
- sixty percent of males who were bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime as adults; 35 to 40 percent of them had three or more convictions by the age of 24
- one in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web
- seventy-five percent of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their families in exchange for goods or services
- only 25 percent of children who encounter a sexual approach or solicitation told a parent or an adult
- one in 33 young people received an aggressive sexual solicitation in the past year. This means a predator asked a young person to meet somewhere, called a young person on the phone, and/or sent the young person correspondence, money, or gifts through the U.S. Postal Service
For the most part, our legal system has not yet caught up with technology; in many states crimes such as cyberbullying not only go unpunished, but they are not yet even recognized as
Much of the current thought about stemming these problems centers on putting in place legislation that deters and punishes egregious behavior on the Web—and to giving victims of
cybercrime, as well as school administrators and the law enforcement community, the tools they need to deal with it.
This is a goal central to the work of Junior League public affairs committees in at least two states. In Missouri, the State Legislative Issues Committee, known as SLIC, has helped
author a bill that both defines cyberbullying and mandates a course of disciplinary action when it occurs, and in Florida, 20 of 24 Leagues have joined the Junior Leagues of Florida State
Public Affairs Committee’s effort to fight cybercrimes.
“Diane and I researched many different topics and cyberbullying was an area where we felt we could make a positive difference,” says Susan Schenberg, who, like Diane Kerckhoff is a cochair
of SLIC and member of the Junior League of St. Louis. “So much federal funding has been cut and we wanted to do something to protect all children.”
Kerckhoff, a Sustainer in the St. Louis League and a grandmother of six, adds, “For me it was more personal. Some of our Sustainers have had grandchildren who’ve experienced cyberbullying and we’ve talked about how devastating it is to a family. It’s something that affects the Junior League membership.”
Schenberg explains, “Unlike traditional bullying, which takes place in the school playground, cyberbullying happens 24/7”—as long as an Internet-compatible device is switched on. “It’s
ongoing; it never stops and it’s destroying lives.”
Schenberg and Kerckhoff formed their committee of six Junior League members in June of last year and by September they were doing their research and putting together a fact sheet of statistics.
SLIC conducted a survey of 12 public schools that took a look at each school’s cyberbullying policies. They examined the legislation in every state and convened with law enforcement
officials, school administrators, and state senators. Then in November, SLIC presented their findings to the Junior League Membership and started a grassroots movement to stop cyberbullying.
By December, the committee had posted on its website a position paper and a petition asking people to support legislation designed not only to define cyberbullying, but also to deter it and
provide a course of action.
“We had to walk a fine line,” said Schenberg. “We didn’t want to be perceived as lobbyists, so we were very cautious.”
By January, members were writing letters to the House of Representatives’ Elementary and Secondary Education Committee members who were about to hear the bill HB 273, which SLIC
had helped write and which was sponsored by Representative Sue Allen.
In February, with members from three other Leagues—the Junior League of St. Joseph, the Junior League of Springfield, and the Junior League of Kansas City—they traveled to the State Capitol in Jefferson City to deliver a fact sheet, a position paper, and a batch of cinnamon rolls, for which the League is famous.
Kerckhoff, who helped revive the cinnamon rolls program after a multi-year hiatus, says she was not surprised when the confections helped them gain access not only to the House of Representatives but also the State Senate where they either met with, or made deliveries of cinnamon rolls and cyberbullying briefing packages to, 188 Representatives and Senators. They also were hosted by the First Lady for lunch at the Governor’s Mansion.
“Our goal is to protect all children,” said Schenberg. “Other bills want enumeration, but we believe that approach will inevitably leave someone out.” (Enumeration refers to the delineation of “classes,” or groups of people, within the legislation against bullying, such as “gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals,” whereas SLIC’s catch-all approach promises not to exclude anyone who is not part of a minority, such as a straight, white, male teenager.)
By late March, Kerckhoff and Schenberg were asked to testify before the House Education Committee, which they did in the first week of April. Joining them at the hearing, among others, were Laura Logsdon, whose son Jayson committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying, and the Wilhelm family, whose daughter Sydney had been the victim of an ongoing 15-month period of bullying, and, as a result, had begun cutting herself. Also in their arsenal were an assortment of letters—from pediatricians specializing in behavior, victims of cyberbullying and
their parents, mental health advocates, school administrators, and parents of adolescent cyberbullying victims who’d committed suicide— that testified to the gravity of the problem and
urged constructive legislation.
Following the hearing, two bills, HB 273 and HB 829, were combined into one to yield an HCS, or House Combined Substitute, which was successfully voted out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee to the House floor. The HCS will be pre-filed on December 1 of this year in order to be voted on as soon as the House returns from recess in the new year.
A comparable bill is being shepherded by Missouri Senator Jane Cunningham and will be heard next session.
According to Schenberg and Kerckhoff, both Representative Allen and Senator Cunningham are confident the bill will pass next year.
“When this bill is passed we will have fulfilled our mission to protect all children in Missouri,” says Schenberg.
Down in Florida, where the State Public Affairs Committee reaches 11,000 women in the state, they chose to follow a double-pronged approach to cybercrimes, tackling both sexual predators who target children online and cyberbullying among children.
“We felt the timing was good on these issues,” says Kirsten Stephenson, 2010-2011 state chair of the Florida SPAC and a member of the Junior League of Boca Raton who recalled a conference at which committee members whittled seven issues down to a total of three. (The third was an unrelated but educationally successful campaign to mandate booster seats for children in automobiles.)
“There was a genuine panic among parents in trying to confront these issues,” she says. “It’s not just the computer or the Internet. And it goes way past Facebook and Myspace. Kids are not even safe playing online video games.”
By the time the SPAC presented the fight against sexual predators and cyberbullying to her League, she says, “In my 11 years in the League I’ve never been to a GMM that got so quiet. There are even ties to human trafficking, whole organizations trolling for kids online.”
Together the committee branded their campaigns under the mission statement “Protecting Florida’s Children,” and used the slogan in all of their marketing materials, which explained not
only who the SPAC was but also what its role is. The materials were distributed to every State Senator and State Representative in Florida.
Once they established their focus, the SPAC went to work on the legislative front, working hand in hand with their elected officials, supporting their bills, and providing them with information about their communities.
Regarding cyberbullying, Stephenson says, “There were few controls in place in Florida,” explaining that schools lacked the manpower and expertise to address cyberbullying. “Their attitude was ‘it’s not our problem.’”
The committee hosted a SPAC conference call dedicated to the issue of cybercrimes. It featured State Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff, who discussed the issue of cyberbullying, and Alexis
Lambert of the Attorney General’s office who briefed SPAC on online predators and the Attorney General’s signature program to address them, which is known as the Child Predator
In addition to urging legislation on each of the issues, the committee took their fight to the community at large, tapping into the Attorney General’s office as a resource for speakers at educational forums such as League general membership meetings, and meetings with schools and community organizations. (The Office of the Attorney General’s Child Predator Cybercrime Unit has won numerous accolades and awards and is now being used as a model that other states—and even the U.K.— can study and replicate.)
Though the bill pertaining to cyberbullying has not yet passed, Florida SPAC was victorious in its support of State Representative Joseph Abruzzo’s bill to lessen the penalty for children under the age of 18 who are guilty of “sexting”— sending naked photographs over cell phones, which was signed into law in May of this year. Also, Florida SPAC strongly supported Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto’s successful legislation, which tightened the reins on the viewing of online child pornography, which was also signed into law.
“The best thing we’ve done is to educate,” says Stephenson, who adds that the SPAC’s efforts have been a success on many fronts. “We get so wrapped up in passing laws that we forget that advocacy is so much more multi-dimensional.”