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California city seeks to criminalize bullying

Carson ordinance could make it illegal to pester classmates, a misdemeanor punishable by fine

CARSON, Calif. — When Councilman Mike Gipson heard that a 16-year-old in nearby Compton had killed himself just before a parent-teacher conference because he had been bullied in school, he knew he had to do something.

“He was bullied from middle school to high school,” Gipson said. “His parents found him in a puddle of blood … the same age as my son.”

Then there was a gay student in Monterey who was shot in the back of the head in class by a boy he was rumored to have a crush on.

“When we look at all these situations, we had to do something in the spirit of saving lives,” Gipson said.

His solution is to make bullying a criminal offense that could result in misdemeanor charges against children as young as 5 and young adults as old as 25. People 18 or older who violate the code could face a misdemeanor charge on the first offense. Minors and their parents would face up to a $100 fine for a first violation, as much as $200 for a second and up to $500 and a misdemeanor charge for a third.

The Carson City Council is expected to approve the ordinance Tuesday, making it the first city in California to criminalize bullying and the only one in the nation with such harsh penalties. It would take effect within 30 days.

The proposed ordinance defines bullying to include verbal, physical and written harassment, including cyberbullying.

“If I’m a parent who receives a citation, I should think that maybe my child needs some help,” said Gipson, a Democrat and third-term councilman who is running for the 64th District seat in the California State Assembly.

“I can’t accept it when people say, ‘It’s part of growing up.’ Is suicide a part of growing up?” he said. “Small bullies become big bullies.”

National and state anti-bullying campaigns have sprung up in the last decade. A 2011 Centers for Disease Control study that found that 20 percent of high school students reported being bullied at school the prior year sparked more action. The CDC said harassment can result in murder, suicide, physical injury, social and emotional distress, depression, anxiety and problems at school and with sleeping.

School districts have instituted educational campaigns to combat the problem.

“The majority of states have legislation around bullying,” said Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, a nonprofit formed in 2006 that works with educators, communities and parents to combat the problem. “The majority of legislation will focus around the schools, but a lot of those now also look at components of cyberbullying, which doesn’t always happen on school grounds.”

If I’m a parent who receives a citation, I should think that maybe my child needs some help. I can’t accept it when people say, ‘It’s part of growing up.’ Is suicide a part of growing up? Small bullies become big bullies.

Councilman Mike Gipson

Carson, California

Communities’ growing interest in fighting the problem is a newer trend. 

In Monona, Wisconsin, a small town surrounded by the state capital, Madison, parents can get a ticket and end up in municipal court if their children are repeat bullies.

Monona police Detective Sgt. Ryan Losby came up with the idea of an anti-bullying ordinance last year. It includes a parent-liability clause and has been in effect this school year.

“We’ve pretty much gone through an entire school year and have not had to issue citations,” Losby said.

Police did hand deliver two warning letters to the a family about reported bullying by two children in the household. “Apparently, both letters were effective,” he said, noting the matter went no further.

Ignoring a warning or more bullying incidents within 90 days of a warning carries a $114 fine that increases if the problem continues. A ticket is a municipal — not criminal — violation.

The Monona ordinance also protects the elderly, Losby said. “It doesn’t have to be a kid,” he said. “We came close to having to use it in senior housing where we had elders harassing each other on a regular basis.”

Hertzog said she doesn’t know how effective these measures are “until we see what actually happens.”

Losby advises communities to conduct a survey before instituting an ordinance to be able to track the effect — something Monona did not do.

So far, school districts and anti-bullying organizations have focused primarily on education.

“The most effective way to reduce prevalence of bullying is prevention,” said Judy Chiasson, program coordinator at the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Talking about it makes everyone value positive social relationships. You have a lesson on good table manners, not one on bad table manners. We want to teach the antithesis of bullying.”

Finger-pointing demonizes individuals and creates more division and tension on campus, she said.

“If there is an incident or allegation of bullying, absolutely we need to address it, and we investigate them in a timely manner,” she said. “We sit down with the party and really try to figure out what is going on in this situation. Is it bullying? Is it a misunderstanding? Is it a criminal act?’’

The term “bullying” is overused, Chiasson said.

“There’s a trend to attach the word ‘bullying’ to every kind of uncomfortable or undesirable interaction with another person,” she said. “We’ve all had somebody steal our spot when we were waiting at Costco. Somebody who runs in front of the line in the cafeteria is just rude and self-centered. It’s not bullying. We have to be careful to distinguish.”

Gipson said the proposed Carson ordinance has gotten support from school principals and from Mayor Jim Dear, a public school teacher.

The councilman has been behind other high-profile measures, including $1,000 fines for drag racing and igniting unsafe fireworks.

“It has all been to preserve life and quality of life,” he said.

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