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When is Bullying a Crime?

Tragic suicides in recent years have galvanized educators into a zero-tolerance stance on bullying. State lawmakers nationwide are increasingly willing to criminalize bullying behavior, even as experts wonder whether doing so will have the intended effect: to curb the behavior and improve the learning atmosphere.

During the school year, some students may come face-to-face with bullying that includes everything from simple taunts to brutal beatings.

Also, too often these students can't escape the digital world that gives these predators access to their prey day and night and well beyond the schoolyard gates.

Below is a fairly recent article from GreenwichTime.com in CT

Criminal charges rare in bullying cases

The suicide of Bart Palosz after the first day of school last year has left the Greenwich community, and many far beyond it, grasping for answers. In the weeks since, few have come about.

As friends and family came forward with stories of a young man mercilessly bullied by his peers, both the Greenwich School system and Police Department launched investigations into what happened to Palosz during his years in Greenwich schools. As the police investigation enters its third week, the Greenwich Police Dept. is still reticent to release details about the circumstances that may have contributed to his death.

But those who have dealt with similar, if not as tragic, issues before say pointing fingers after such a tragedy is easy. And there has been much of that here. Assigning legal or criminal responsibility is much more difficult.

"It's a lot tougher than it seems," said Sergeant Joseph Kennedy of the Stamford Police Dept. about police involvement in bullying cases.

Bullying is a phenomenon:

falling somewhere in the gray area between criminal activity and youthful insecurity. It can even be hard to define, depending on perspective. "Bullying, the act itself, is not a crime," said Westport-based attorney Gary Phelan. "It depends how it's manifested. Smashing someone's head into the corner of a locker, that's assault and battery. That's a crime."

Phelan was referring to an incident described to Greenwich Time by Palosz's sister Beata, who said that on his last day of eighth grade, a classmate bashed her brother's head into a metal locker door, opening a gash on his forehead that required a trip to the emergency room for stitches. Though Palosz's parents sought repercussions for the bully from the school and demanded to see security camera footage of the incident, the school system deemed it an accident and refused to share any video.

But not all situations are so shocking or so clearly criminal. More often, criminal dimensions of bullying come to fore with the buildup of smaller transgressions and their becoming frequent and habitual, Kennedy said.

"Usually these things start verbally, and today's verbal also includes the Internet, email, text message," he said. "But like any other stalking or harassment case, one instance [of verbal abuse] isn't criminal."

The same holds true for when incidents turn physical, to a degree.

"One-time occurrence of a kid being pushed in the hallway, that's not criminal," Kennedy said, "that's just a kid being a jerk. But if it keeps happening, then it builds up."

Crininanal Prosecution:

is not a guarantee even though you have grounds for filing criminal charges. Often, criminal incidences of bullying will go unreported, and not just because the legal definitions between criminal and non-criminal bullying can be ambiguous.

"Bullied kids can feel identifying their bullies presents other problems," said Lt. Jim Perez of the Fairfield Police Dept. who heads up the department's school security efforts. "The victims believe that nothing will ever get done, and they fear retaliation. They have no confidence anything will change."

Police Investigations:

are hampered due to the mix of legal gray area and a culture of silence surrounding bullying and can make the levying of criminal charges particularly difficult. Isolating specific criminal incidents amid a persistent backdrop of bullying can be a challenge for witnesses, making for a more challenging investigation and then prosecution.

Phelan said that, realistically, it's unlikely in most cases of criminal bullying that the bully will face criminal charges.

"It's only when something like this surfaces where it gets a lot of attention that you start to see civil or criminal action taken against the kids who are doing the bullying," he said.

Prosecution is no guarantee:

as in the 2002 case of 12-year-old J. Daniel Scruggs, who hung himself in a closet in his Meriden home after years of bullying. Schoolmates reported that the bullying was often viciously physical. The diminutive middle schooler was hit, kicked and pushed down stairs routinely, and verbal harassment was even more common.

And yet, despite the lurid details and media coverage, none of Scruggs' bullies were ever charged or prosecuted. Rather, it was Scruggs' mother who ended up facing charges of risk of injury to a minor, after officials judged her to be neglectful.

Though bullying is as old as classrooms, only in the past decade or so have states moved to address, legislatively, what once was simply the domain of schools. In 1999, only Georgia had an anti-bullying law. Now every state but Montana does. In the past 13 years, states have enacted nearly 130 anti-bullying measures, half of which came since 2008.

Here are some recent trends: (The numbers have most likely changed)

Currently, there is proposed legislation that would require both the bully's and the victim's parents to take part in mediation after a bullying report. If the bully's parents refuse to cooperate, prosecutors could pursue fines or criminal charges. Criminal charges would most likely be through community service, not jail time. Bringing the parents into the process helps to connect the dots for a child.

States are looking at the new legislation in Maine, recently signed by Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, that focuses on prevention and on training for teachers.