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The law packs a punch that the worst bullies won’t forget Add to ...

It was once said that a punch on the nose would drive off a bully. Today, the Criminal Code is the new punch on the nose.

Eight schoolgirls in London, Ont., were charged with criminal harassment last week for allegedly bullying another schoolgirl – physically, emotionally and on the Internet. The police won’t give details, not even the ages of the accused or the victims, or how long the bullying went on.

At first blush, this new front against bullies seems a panicky response to recent suicides in which bullying was a factor, such as that of 15-year-old Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, B.C., this month. Not every schoolyard or Internet conflict, even cruel, harmful, ones, should be criminalized; and freedom of speech on the Internet should not be sacrificed in the understandable desire to protect the vulnerable.

But then – what of the three teenage boys in California who posted a video in which they graphically described raping a teenage girl in the back of a pickup truck? Is that what Americans call “protected speech”? Although the rape didn’t happen, isn’t the posting of that video an act of intimidation or threat?

And what of the posting of an actual rape video in which a teenage girl in Pitt Meadows, B.C., was attacked? Is that posting constitutionally protected in Canada, or is it child pornography, or perhaps something not clearly defined in the Criminal Code?

What about the individuals who ensured that a screen shot of Amanda flashing her breasts online at age 12 followed her for years as she went on various social-media sites? Is there a crime, perhaps criminal harassment, that fits?

These perpetrators should be held criminally responsible for their actions. They preyed on vulnerable people in ways they should have known could have devastating consequences. The real question is where to draw the line so that the criminal law is used as a last resort – for extreme cases only.

Is London an extreme case? A local paper reported that the bullying involved physical fights, name-calling and “nasty posts” on social-networking sites. Hard to judge with such limited information. But why should predatory behaviour that is not allowed on the street be allowed on the Internet? Follow someone repeatedly and call her rude names and see if you don’t get charged. And if a student is physically assaulted on multiple occasions, it seems obvious criminal charges should be laid.

The extreme-case approach is, however, a slippery slope. Many parents will argue that the case involving their child is extreme. Schools are already flooded with complaints in which ordinary conflicts are blown out of proportion. Next, the police? And the criminal law is very often the wrong instrument – a child abandoned or mistreated at home may lash out at school. Sometimes, a bit of support makes the most sense. But should a victim in an extreme case be denied justice because others will make unreasonable claims on the police?

Used sparingly, the criminal law can anchor a broad-based approach to bullying that seeks to make it not only unacceptable but unthinkable. That view came out of a Nova Scotia task force on bullying this year chaired by Wayne MacKay, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law in Halifax. Law sends a message about what society values, he says. “I do think we need some criminal prosecutions for extreme cases, to send the message that this is serious business, not a minor thing.”

Bullying is a problem of accountability. Until fairly recently, bullies and the bystanders who served as their facilitators and accomplices acted in the open. But school districts across Canada have begun to take it seriously, and administrators are being held accountable for acting against bullying. Even bystanders in some jurisdictions face the prospect of being held responsible as participants.

So bullying has gone underground. In cyberspace, the bullies and bystanders feel anonymous. And cyberbullying, reaching into the home, spreading over an entire community and beyond, lasting potentially forever, can do enormous psychic damage. It is no overdramatization to say that, for a sensitive child or one predisposed to mental illness, it can be soul- or life-destroying. That was the meaning of Amanda Todd’s suicide.

It’s true that schoolkids have done that sort of thing forever, but so what? Hazing went on forever until institutions began cracking down on its more violent expressions. So did wife-beating, and drunk driving. And legal changes anchored a broader change in attitudes. Even the bystanders stopped standing by.

Some say the best answer is for parents to keep an eye on children’s Internet behaviour. But most parents don’t have the technical skills, and even if they did, the most vulnerable children, those without involved parents, would still be vulnerable.

The Criminal Code, protecting the vulnerable against predation, using existing laws against harassment and intimidation, if possible, would send a message against bullying that has never been sent before.

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