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.
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.
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.”