JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation to regulate cyberbullying passed the Missouri House of Representatives on Thursday, but vague language has some Missouri representatives questioning its effectiveness.
"There's really no question that we all care about whether children are safe or not," said Rep. Sarah Lampe, D-Springfield. "But the cyberbullying legislation that is a part of this bill is not strong enough."
Under the bill, cyberbullying covers the use of the Internet or text messaging to "ridicule, harass, intimidate, humiliate or otherwise bully a student."
The state's harassment law was expanded in 2008 to include cyberbullying. This bill would require school districts to have an anti-cyberbullying policy. The issue could then be addressed by schools as well as the courts.
Lampe and Rep. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said the bill doesn't clarify for schools what should be done to find and stop cyberbullies. She said the lack of specificity will leave school districts unsure about how to implement anti-bullying policy, and without clear guidelines, cyberbullying in Missouri will continue.
"(Schools) are not responding because they don't have explicit policies to follow," Lampe said. "We haven't given them the ammunition they need to be able to protect our children."
Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, sponsored the bill. He has had experience in school administration, serving as a junior high principal for 4 1/2 years.
Wallace said junior high students are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to taunts and insults.
"You talk to school people; they either love or they hate junior high kids," Wallace said. "I loved it because you got to see these young people develop and they were just fascinating every day. But every day you had some issues."
Wallace said too much specificity in language takes away the power from local school boards to create their own policies. He said school boards and school administrations know how to implement policy better than legislators because each school district has its own needs.
Lampe invoked the recent death of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts. The high school freshman committed suicide in January after classmates relentlessly insulted and taunted her. Lampe said she worries that without clear and defined policies for schools, deaths like Prince's will persist.
Missouri is no stranger to the horrors of cyberbullying.
In 2006, the state experienced one of the most well-known cases of cyberbullying in the country when 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after a 16-year-old MySpace user called Josh sent her hurtful messages. The MySpace bully turned out to be Lori Drew, a family acquaintance
Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall, said the legislation is a good start.
"It's not perfect, but it goes a long way to make our schools safer," Aull said.
Aull said the legislation will provide education for Missouri schools to prevent further violence. The bill requests $500,000 for the School Safety and School Violence Prevention Fund, which will create a statewide center to provide resources for bullying prevention.
But Lampe said the weak language will cost the state money in lawsuits.
"We're putting our schools in line for more litigation when we have weak school policies," Lampe said. "Schools are going to be sued."
The bill now heads to the Senate.