Our View: Name-callers don’t belong behind bars

Our View: Name-callers don’t belong behind bars

Last week we reported that two Alexandria delegates, Adam Ebbin (D-49) and David Englin (D-45), want to take a hard line on bullying. Ebbin introduced a law criminalizing the schoolyard scourge, making it a class one misdemeanor in Virginia punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Englin took a more holistic approach, sponsoring a bill requiring school administrators be well versed in handling bullies.
Among other high-profile cases, the September suicide of promising Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, whose roommate reportedly broadcast his sexual acts the Internet, has reinvigorated public interest in solving the bullying problem, and thats a good thing.
But we take issue with criminalizing a subjective act with so many faces. Why criminalize an (admittedly antisocial) activity when there are already laws on the books to punish people who harass, assault or stalk others? Those who threaten others with violence or intimidation already risk face time with a local police officer or judge.
Clementis roommate will pay for illegally recording the young man and broadcasting it to the world, but whether he is ultimately responsible for a suicide is another question. It sounds harsh, even to us, but by definition there is only one person ultimately responsible for suicide.
Bullying also includes verbal harassment. In a country based on free speech, a judge should not dictate schoolyard discussion. What if one teenagers political beliefs offend anothers? Should the student avoid discussing them openly for fear of being branded a criminal?
Cyberbullying is a new and tough trend for parents, teachers and children alike. But is it a debate we need Richmond to join? The Internet is the most unregulated institution in the world, and it would be draconian (not to mention impossible) to comprehensively clamp down on mean-spirited messages sent via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or any other platform.
Where we need the authorities judges and police officers is in dictating what happens to actual lawbreakers like the three teenagers responsible for the 2003 beating death of Schuyler Jones, a 16-year-old T.C. Williams student who was victimized at Market Square. His death may have been avoidable, but its doubtful criminalizing hurtful name-calling would have done the trick.
Englins bill, HB 1575, could have helped by training teachers and administrators to recognize problematic trends and nipping them in the bud, but criminalizing bullying is oversensitive.
Everyone looks for someone to hold responsible when bullying rears its ugly head; school administrators are often an unfair scapegoat. School is not a parental surrogate; its a learning institution. If a bully goes to jail, his or her parents might as well join them. 
Criminalizing an act with so many shades of gray is not the way to discourage bullying, nor should school staff be held fully responsible. They should be given the tools they need, as Englins bill proposes, to stop tragedies before they start.