Bullying, amplified by social media, can be a serious problem. But bringing criminal charges against children and teenagers who are mean to their peers isn't the answer, especially when they're literally too young to have learned that one plus one equals two. The city of Carson should back away from its proposal to make bullying a low-level crime.
If it passes, the proposed ordinance could result in the arrest of any bully whose victim is kindergarten age up to 25 years old; the perp could be a kindergartner as well. The first two violations would be considered infractions and the third a misdemeanor. Parents of minors could also face arrest or fines.
But even though the ordinance is intended to address bullying that truly intimidates, there's too much leeway for turning everyday childhood taunting into a case for the prosecutor's office. The official report to the Carson City Council supporting the proposal, for instance, cites as examples of cyber bullying "hurtful, rude and mean text messages" as well as "spreading rumors or lies about others" by social media. Carson Mayor Jim Dear, a teacher whose support for the proposal is obviously sincere and well intentioned, says it gives the victims of bullying a weapon against their enemies that they now lack: the ability to say "that's a crime and you can be put in jail for it!"
It would be a mistake to bring children into the criminal justice system for bullying except in the most severe situations, such as violent attacks. As the ordinance says, bullies as well as their victims are more prone to suicide than other children. Arrest is not a useful long-term strategy.
And there are already laws that prohibit criminal threats and use of the Internet to harass or instill fear. In fact, an article included in the report to the City Council recommends broadening the use of existing laws rather than creating an overlapping anti-bullying law. It also notes that most off-campus taunting is protected under free-speech guarantees.
Dear says the new law would be helpful because police and prosecutors currently see bullying as minor and are loath to respond to complaints. But it's unclear how the proposed law would change police priorities.
Children who make the lives of others miserable shouldn't get away with it. But Carson would be better off hiring a trained civilian intervention officer to visit both families in cases of serious bullying, to advise victims of their rights under existing laws and to try to mediate agreements and change behaviors. Children often escalate problematic situations, but adults should resist the temptation.