Skip to main content

It's time to outlaw bullying

By Mark O'Mara
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
In his project about the invisible pain caused by bullying, photographer Rich Johnson had professional makeup artists simulate injuries on children's bodies. The wounds feature a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents. In his project about the invisible pain caused by bullying, photographer Rich Johnson had professional makeup artists simulate injuries on children's bodies. The wounds feature a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents.
HIDE CAPTION
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: In my practice of law, I've seen the devastating effects of bullying
  • O'Mara: Bullying is the intentional and systematic harassment of a person
  • He says we need to make bullying illegal and protect kids who are victims
  • O'Mara: We don't want to outlaw childhood, but we can't let kids be abusive

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN legal analyst. He is a criminal defense attorney who frequently writes and speaks about issues related to race, guns and self-defense in the context of the American criminal justice system. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I got involved in the conversation about bullying after a young Central Florida girl, Rebecca Sedwick, leapt to her death from a water tower in an abandoned industrial plant on September 9, 2013. She had been aggressively bullied by other girls. After one of the girls commented about the suicide on Facebook -- essentially admitting to the bullying and showing no remorse -- Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd arrested the girl. The charges were soon dropped, however, as bullying is not a crime.

In my practice of family law and criminal defense, I know firsthand that while bullying may not be a crime, it can have devastating effects on young victims.

I've seen bullying victims' grades sharply decline. I've seen victims have to change their class schedules -- or change schools completely -- because a school was unable or unwilling to address the behavior of the bully. And, of course, there have been suicides.

Bullying is not name calling. It's not a little harmless schoolyard razzing. Bullying is the systematic harassment of an individual with the intent to cause substantial emotional distress.

The important elements here are "systematic harassment" and "substantial emotional distress." It can include social ostracism, "slut-shaming," extortion, sexual extortion, and more.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Last year I proposed a bill in Florida that would have defined bullying and made it illegal. A similar bill drafted by Florida state Sen. David Simmons was introduced, but unfortunately died in appropriations. Nonetheless, over the next year I'll be campaigning for the bill to be reintroduced, and I'll work to rally support for the bill so we can get a sensible law on the books to protect children who are victims of bullying.

In Carson, California, earlier this month, City Council member Mike Gipson led the charge to pass an ordinance to make bullying an act punishable by a fine for the first two offenses, and with a misdemeanor charge on the third offense. It, too, failed to pass, and I'm afraid the failure is due to opinions like that of the mayor of Portersville, California, who recently said, "I'm against bullying, but I'm getting damn tired of it being used as a mantra for everything and the ills of the world, when all most people have to do is grow a pair and stick up for them damn selves."

Those who oppose laws against bullying raise valid concerns. We don't want to outlaw childhood. We don't want to criminally punish kids for being kids. We don't want to make it illegal to call people names. (Who would judge such a thing anyway?)

We need to teach our children that they must know how to deal with confrontation and adversity. We should not, however, allow our children to be the victims of systematic harassment designed to inflict emotional distress.

Those who oppose laws against bullying have quoted the old phrase "sticks and stones." I think the people who take a "sticks and stones" attitude have never had a chance to witness the effects of bullying. Verbal abuse and emotional distress, after all, leave no visible scars -- until now.

Photographer Rich Johnson recently completed a photo project designed to illustrate the invisible pain caused by verbal abuse. For his project, Rich called upon the skills of professional makeup artists who simulated injuries on children's faces or arms, and in the wounds featured a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents.

The results are arresting. A little girl with the word "moron" bruised into her neck. A teenager with the word "slut" emerging form a massive bruise on her cheek. A grown man with the word "worthless" smeared in blood across his face. Some are words that are not appropriate to publish here -- yet they are words that people have been called.

I think people who oppose efforts to craft anti-bully laws should look at the photos from this project and read some of the stories. Sure, the injuries are simulated, but these photos are provocative, and they've prompted an outpouring of feedback. The photographer shared this comment with me, submitted to him through the project page on Facebook:

"Seeing the pictures that are a part of your project brought tears to my eyes because I can completely relate. Words cut deeper than any object ever could especially when they come from people that you care about and thought cared about you as well."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT