Cottage Grove police push for charges against students' Facebook cyberbullyingCottage Grove police are using a tougher tactic to fight online bullying among teenagers: they’re seeking criminal charges of defamation and harassment.
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
Law enforcement officers are using a tougher tactic to fight online bullying among teenagers: they’re seeking criminal charges of defamation and harassment.
Police who work in local schools said they are seeing students increasingly turning to Facebook, text-messaging and other social media to harass peers. With Facebook, the so-called cyberbullying allows other students to pile on and exacerbate the harassment or ridicule.
One recent case at Park High School prompted police to take an unusual step and recommend a male student be charged with criminal defamation. In another case, a female student could be charged with criminal harassment after sending threatening text messages to a Park classmate.
The problems also are occurring at middle schools. Police officers earlier this year subpoenaed Facebook as they sought information about who created fake Facebook pages in other students’ names in an attempt to bully them.
“It just keeps coming,” Park school resource officer Pat Nickle said of bullying via Facebook and texting.
In the most recent case, a 14-year-old Park student posted a comment on his Facebook page that included humiliating sexual remarks about a 15-year-old female classmate.
“He basically, in a nutshell, called her (promiscuous),” Nickle said. Other students then commented on that original post.
That is part of what prompted him to seek the defamation charge: the student allegedly knew he was posting false and defamatory comments about the girl and then solicited others to engage in an online conversation.
Nickle saw the Facebook post and printed a copy of the comment thread. The incident came after the girl had been bullied the entire school year.
“It got to the point where we need to nip this in the bud,” Nickle said.
The student wrote an apology letter to the girl, but the case still is being forwarded for consideration by prosecutors.
The defamation charge, a gross misdemeanor, could be difficult to prosecute in part because it has to be proven that the student knew what he wrote was defamatory, while meeting other legal requirements. State law essentially defines criminal defamation as anything spoken or written that exposes someone or a group to hatred or ridicule.
The Washington County Attorney’s Office had not yet reviewed the case as of last week.
Adults can face jail time if found guilty of defamation, but a juvenile would face other potential consequences, such as community service hours or required attendance in anti-bullying classes.
In another recent case at Park High School, a female student repeatedly has bullied a female classmate. Already punished once for the bullying, the girl continued by saying the victim was going to die and by sending her harassing text messages, Nickle said. Police are requesting that the girl be charged with harassment.
Cyberbullying is an increasing problem for schools and law enforcement, said Gail Griffith, a Cottage Grove police officer who works at Cottage Grove Middle School. Police work closely with school principals and other administrators to address bullying.
Schools have anti-bullying policies in place, but cyberbullying is more difficult for administrators and law enforcement to deal with because it can happen outside school while affecting what goes on in school, officials said.
“Whether it’s a fake Facebook page or a real Facebook page, it’s just a whole new way for kids to mass communicate,” Griffith said. “It’s just taken bullying to a new level.”
Also, bullying is not a crime under state law, but in severe cases prosecutors may seek a harassment charge. Or, if a student’s life is threatened, a terroristic threats charge could be filed.
Consequences for students who are caught bullying in area schools sometimes includes a referral to the Youth Services Bureau, the local agency that holds classes and works with youth facing problems ranging from theft to truancy and now to bullying.
The Youth Service Bureau has added a class on bullying, which addresses traditional bullying and what is taking place on the Internet, including on Facebook and online video games.
Jen Rockhill, Youth Service Bureau’s community justice program coordinator, said the class is designed to make sure students understand what bullying is and what effects and consequences can stem from it.
“There are times they don’t get that they’re being a bully,” Rockhill said. “Sometimes if you just lay out the behaviors in front of them they can figure that out for themselves.”
Police say there probably would be less cyberbullying if more parents knew what their children were posting on the Internet and sending via text messages.
“The problem is that the parents don’t have access to their kids’ Facebook (accounts) so they don’t know what’s going on, what’s being said,” Nickle said. “I would hope that if they knew, it wouldn’t be happening.”