Photo Credit: VennGage
#1 – The 21st Century Has A New Playground For Bullies
In today’s digital age, cyberbullying laws like Grace’s Law and David’s Law, aim to change how social media platforms regulate digital abuse. Approximately 34% of the students report experiencing cyberbullying during their lifetime and 15% of students admitted to cyberbullying others during their lifetime. Cyberbullying, or ‘digital abuse,’ is today’s newest weapon for bullying, hosted on social media platforms across the globe.
Traditional bullying has evolved from just beyond the classroom, extending into the private lives and homes of students around the globe. With the emergence of social media and new technology, the ability for someone to send and receive threatening or harassing text messages, comments, chats, pictures, etc.; the damage goes as far as death.
But, the law hasn’t caught up yet.
#2 –How Maryland’s Cyberbullying Legislation, ‘Grace’s Law’ Came About
In 2013, the Maryland Legislature introduced landmark legislation, known as “Grace’s Law,” after 15-year-old Grace McComas died by suicide after being bullied online and sexually harassed for months with little assistance from the school district or other public agencies they approached for help.
The law makes it a misdemeanor for repeatedly bullying an individual under the age of 18 through a computer or smartphone. If convicted, a person could face fines up to $500.00 or up to one year in prison.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Christine McComas, mother and voice of Grace, to discuss the importance of spreading awareness about cyberbullying and the necessity of updating our laws.
Here is Grace’s story–
How A Series of ‘Tweets’ Changed A Family’s Life Forever
Grace was thirteen going on fourteen as she started high school in 2011. A bright light from the moment she was born, Grace had a kind heart and was open and welcoming to those around her. She was an active and engaging teen with a great sense of humor.She reminded us of Gilda Radner back in the early days of Saturday Night Live.
One evening, towards the end of Grace’s freshman year, Grace fell victim to a drug-assisted sexual assault, committed by the older brother of a good friend of hers, who were neighbors. Attending a party in the neighborhood, Grace experimented with alcohol.
She soon found herself alone with the older youth- a troubled young man with a history of making poor choices. The young man repeatedly tipped up the bottles of hard liquor when she drank, telling her to ‘get over’ the taste, and began asking her about her alcohol tolerance. He then searched the house for prescription pills, ultimately finding an old prescription for Oxycodone. He crushed a pill and told Grace that she should try (snort) it, and said it wouldn’t hurt her. She later told me she felt like her head was going to explode, but he insisted she finish it, then took advantage of her. (He did not partake, but pocketed pills saying he could get good money for them.)
You Don’t Have To Be On Social Media To Be A Victim
The following day was Father’s Day, and she didn’t want to ruin it for the family, so she waited until the day after to tell us what she could remember. What we didn’t know at the time was how social media worked. I’d never even heard of Twitter, and certainly didn’t know how damaging the instantaneous and far reaching threats and malicious harassment could be.
She didn’t even have a Twitter account. But she didn’t need to in order to hear about it. The young man had hundreds of ‘followers’. Each time he posted something from his handle, people could share it or save it to show friends of Grace’s. Ultimately, they’d get ahold of her and tell her that he was posting messages about her on his account. Of course, she was able to search his Twitter handle publicly and see the posts for herself.
I was shocked at the level of hostility, anger, and abuse that was being aimed at my child—
- “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you. Next time my name rolls off your tongue choke on it and DIE”
- “I hope you somehow see this and cry yourself to sleep, then wake up and kill yourself- you might as well, your just a worthless piece of sh**”.
- “Snitches should have their fingers cut off one by one while they watch their families burn”
It took a while before we knew, but the cyberbullying began after Grace had been subpoenaed as a witness against him in a court case.
The way that kids are digitally interconnected today amplifies the hatred and broadcasts the abuse to entire peer groups. He repeatedly described her to others as a “whore who was trying to ruin his life”. For a young teen it was devastating. She became anxious, fearful and depressed. Especially given she had to see him and those people every day in school.
Once I became aware, I collected the tweets and requested help from the schools, police, the states attorney who had issued the subpoena and the courts.
Schools Need To Get Involved
The school said there was nothing they could do because it “didn’t happen at school.” They wouldn’t even call his parents, which is crazy. The states attorney said they could make it stop, but didn’t. We assumed wrongly that she would be protected. Months went by and the tweeting continued.
Grace was still under pressure, and it became clear that she was suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression. She was still hearing of cyber abuse and sexual harassment.
Around January, Grace was still struggling—having trouble sleeping and eating. After eventually finding that no one was holding him accountable for his digital abuse, I went online and screenshot proof and again contacted multiple public agencies, literally begging for help…but the damage was done.
Easter, The Most Dreaded Holiday For The McComas Family
On Easter Sunday in 2012, we were a month away from this young man graduating and leaving for college. Grace was looking forward to getting her braces off soon, and to making a trip to visit family friends….
The older girls were home from college and the family had enjoyed their traditional Easter egg hunt when Grace slipped away and ended her life. Grace knew we were fighting for her, and she knew no help was arriving. The young man was never held accountable or even made to apologize.
Twitter was a loophole in the law at the time. We immediately began speaking out to raise awareness and make change. Less than a year after Grace’s death, Grace’s Law was enacted, which closed that loophole and offered child protections from repeated, malicious cyber-hatred and abuse.
#3 – Laws Needs Strengthening to Keep Up with Changing Tech
While Grace’s Law seemed to address the loophole the misuse of social media initially contributed to online bullying, it failed to address conduct that incited or induced another to harm themselves, to the point of death.
Maryland Senator, Robert Zirkin, Pushes For Grace’s Law 2.0
A Maryland bill this legislative session called Grace’s Law 2.0 addressed this and added tougher penalties. It unanimously passed in the Senate, and likely would have passed the House as well, but the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee would not allow it brought forward for a vote. Senator Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) was the lead sponsor behind the bill.
“While it’s extremely unfortunate that it did not pass, this is just the beginning,” said Zirkin. It’s getting worse, not better. It’s growing exponentially because it’s no longer just bullying among kids; it’s individuals who feel at liberty to say whatever comes to their minds, no matter how defamatory or insulting.
“What happened to Grace and to Christine’s family was beyond outrageous, but unfortunately, not an isolated case,” Zirkin emphasized. Our laws have not caught up to the tech, and are in dire need of an update.
Texas’s Cyberbullying Law, ‘David’s Law’
Based on legislation in Texas, nicknamed ‘David’s Law,’ the bill aims to prohibit the creation of fake social media accounts and material meant to “intimidate, torment, or harass a minor,” which includes inducing a minor to fatally harm themselves, removing any First Amendment protection arguments.
Under the current rules in place to address bullying, civil injunctive relief requires a plaintiff to show “immediate, substantial and irreparable harm,” a process Senator Zirkin believes to be slow and outdated.
“Facebook doesn’t stop when you leave school grounds,” Zirkin told lawmakers. “Neither does [other social media]. These are growing problems, not isolated to Maryland, and we have to get better at this.”
#4 –You Can Make The Difference
We are all held accountable by our own conduct. We can change the world simply by spreading awareness about the dangers cyberbullying and online trolling brings. Each year—every third Friday in June, the country recognizes an international day of awareness and activities online and off, speaking to cyberbullying.
Known as “Stop Cyberbullying Day,” individuals, thought leaders, corporations, schools, governments, institutions and organizations join together in celebrating and promoting a truly inclusive and diverse online environment, free from personal threats, harassment, and abuse.
It starts with you. You can make a difference.