St. Louis police get closer look at cyberbullying

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | 4:57 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Tina Meier has told the story of her 13-year-old daughter Megan's 2006 suicide to teachers, TV talk show hosts, the White House and parents throughout the country. Now she's helping to train police officers to better recognize the unflinching, often brutal world of electronic harassment.

More than 70 officers from two dozen Missouri and Illinois law enforcement agencies gathered Wednesday for a daylong cyberbullying workshop led by Meier. Her daughter killed herself after a woman who lived in the family's St. Charles County neighborhood created a fake MySpace admirer named "Josh" who befriended Megan and eventually encouraged her to kill herself. The woman was convicted in a California federal court of three misdemeanors, but a judge overturned the conviction.

All but a few states now have laws covering cyberbullying or electronic harassment, which includes harassing text messages, among other things. But Meier said prosecutors and judges have been reluctant to enforce the laws.

"We need to really get more of an understanding with prosecuting attorneys and judges," Meier told The Associated Press. "The laws are as plain as black and white. If they don't use it, it's not worth the paper it's written on."

With Meier's help, Missouri updated its harassment laws in 2008 to include electronic communication. The state Supreme Court struck down a portion of that law in May 2012, citing free speech concerns.

Meier said she doesn't think the high court ruling will have much impact on enforcement efforts. But she also isn't aware of any convictions in Missouri under the revamped bullying laws.

In 2009, a 40-year-old St. Peters woman was charged with felony harassment under the "Megan Meier" law for allegedly posting a 17-year-old's photo, cellphone number and email address on the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist, an online marketplace for sexual encounters. The girl was the daughter of her ex-husband's girlfriend. But a jury found the woman not guilty two years later.

Patrick Horvath, a Washington University police officer, said the training offered by Meier and the advocacy group Child Safety Day is essential in a culture where "you can't go anywhere without seeing kids with their faces buried in their phones."

Rebecca Biermann, another officer at Washington University, who previously worked for a Franklin County Sheriff's Office task force on Internet crimes against children, said her team there investigated an electronic harassment case similar to the Megan Meier situation, complete with a fake online identity.

"But when we sent it over to the prosecutor, he said there wasn't really enough evidence" to press charges, she said. "It makes it tough for us to work a case and see it through."

Workshop organizers Wednesday focused as much on prevention and awareness as they did on arrest and prosecution. They urged the participants to be vigilant in identifying potential problems early on since cyberbullying — like all bullying — carries the risk of the victim seeking vengeance on his or her tormenters. That includes deadly school shootings where the assailant strikes back against perceived tormenters, they said.

Meanwhile, cyberbullying cases ending in tragedy persist.

In south Florida, a 12-year-old girl near Tampa Bay killed herself by jumping off a concrete plant tower two weeks ago after enduring months of online humiliation by other middle-school girls. Authorities in Lakeland, Fla. confiscated computers and cellphones from some of the girls as they decide whether to file criminal charges. Florida has a bullying law, but it leaves punishment to schools, not police.

Participants at the St. Louis workshop spent the afternoon examining three cyberbullying cases: Meier's death; the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, whose roommate surreptitiously recorded a sexual encounter between Clementi and another man in their dorm room; and Anthony Zeno, a New York high school student who was awarded $1 million by a state appeals court that found his former school didn't adequately prevent racial harassment.

"This gives you a clearer view of the problem," said Sgt. Dennis Epps of the Moline Acres Police Department in St. Louis County.

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