The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

November 6, 2013

Criminal case puts focus on bullying laws

WASHINGTON — Once considered a teenage rite of passage, bullying is now the subject of hundreds of state laws and a rallying cry for pundits, parents and celebrities.

The stakes are high — many teens who commit suicide experienced at least some bullying. Bullying by itself does not cause suicide, according to a research review conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But researchers found that youth who are bullied are more likely to be depressed, think about suicide and actually attempt suicide.

Coming up with a workable plan to stop bullying has proven difficult. The approaches are all over the map. For instance, Illinois requires schools to do social-emotional learning exercises to prevent bullying. During the exercises, students describe their emotions during a stressful event or recognize the emotional reactions to stress.

On the punishment side, five states don’t have any sanctions for bullying in their anti-bullying laws, while 12 states include a criminal sanction for bullies, ranging from school suspension to jail time, according to an analysis of state bullying laws from the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Montana is the only state with no law to address bullying.

The criminal side of these laws is generating controversy in Florida. Two young central Florida teens are facing felony aggravated stalking charges for bullying a 12-year-old classmate, Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the bullying crossed the line from teen meanness into criminal harassment.

Sedwick received text messages and online messages from the two teens telling her to kill herself and that she should “drink bleach and die.” Sedwick was also physically attacked by the two girls, according to the sheriff’s department.

“Bullying shouldn’t be a law enforcement issue … but when it becomes a crime, we have to become involved,” Judd said in an interview with WBUR’s “Here and Now” radio show. Sedwick had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt in 2012 and also changed schools, but the bullying continued online.

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