- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2018

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan House voted on a cyberbullying bill Thursday that could lead to the state criminally defining threatening behavior specifically on the internet for the first time.

Lawmakers in that chamber approved the two-bill measure that describes cyberbullying as “harassing or intimidating behavior.” It now heads to the Senate.

The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Lucido, said that his region’s school district in Macomb County has seen vicious behavior online, including some that has led to fatal situations. The county’s prosecutor’s office agreed there needs to be a law to help squelch cyberbullying, he said.

“When you’re dealing with these cases day in and day out, the police want some type of mechanism to help,” Lucido, a Republican from Shelby Township, said.

If the Senate and governor feel the same, Michigan would join the growing ranks of states moving to criminalize the evolving mediums for bullying. In 2016, Michigan was ranked last by WalletHub’s analysis on which states are most adept at controlling bullying.

Most students surveyed in a 2015 Wayne State University study said bullying was a problem at their schools. Almost 80 percent reported being aware of some sort of bullying that year, but less than one-fifth of students said anti-bullying policies at their schools were sufficient.

Wayne State University professor Jun Sung Hong, who authored the study, said he has mixed feelings about Thursday’s bill, saying it imposes a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Bullying is not an equal opportunity act, and what I mean by that is that some kids are more likely to be bullied than others due to their demographics,” he said.

Under the proposed law, offenders could receive penalties as high as a felony sentencing should their actions lead to serious harm. A recent example of such an outcome occurring was the case of Tysen Benz, the 11-year-old Michigan boy who took his own life last year after an online prank convinced him that his girlfriend had done the same.

But Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said criminalizing behavior mainly associated with minors will be unsuccessful.

“They’re emotional, they act spontaneously, they act without thinking and are introduced in the criminal justice system and labeled as such,” he said. “That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law directing school districts to apply anti-bullying policy to internet harassment as well.

Lucido said his bills are intended to stamp out online messages or posts directly demonstrating the intent to commit violence. Online “trolls” must be held accountable, he said.

He said that currently “when you bully on the internet, those consequences are very limited,” he said.

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