Florida Teen Suicide Raises Questions about Charging Minors with Cyberbullying
In January, two Florida students were charged with cyberstalking (i.e. online bullying) in connection with the death of a middle-school student who killed herself earlier that month. While police are still investigating the exact cause of death, reportedly, once police were made aware of potential cyberbullying, they insisted upon closely examining cellphone and social media accounts, as well as interviewing the two young suspects.
Although penalties for charges like these vary from state to state, in Florida, the charge can constitute a third-degree felony. As a result, the minors being charged have not been released.
Cyberbullying & Parental Fear
This type of news story shocks parents around the country for several reasons: Not only out of the fear that one’s child could be bullied by other students and harm themselves as a result, but also due to the fact that the accused minors have been arrested, charged, and held in prison even though the police investigation has not yet actually determined their behavior to be the cause of their classmate’s death.
What about Parental & School Liability?
Shouldn’t some of the responsibility of preventing and addressing any potential bullying fall on parents and schools in these circumstances? The police investigating this case reportedly also found that, in general, students at the school in question were using certain phone apps extensively without any supervision, resulting in dangerous consequences, such as attracting the attention of online predators and sexting.
Are We Creating Criminals?
In recent years, several children around the world have reportedly inflicted harm against themselves in connection with their online lives, leaving many questions behind. Experts have, for years, cautioned that giving children free rein online can have troubling consequences.
However, this is not the only concern: Many are also worried that the laws we are putting in place to protect kids online are in fact turning these kids into criminals because they have not been carefully drafted. Florida law, for example, defines cyberstalk as engaging in course of conduct (or causing to be communicated) words, language, or other communications through the use of electronic mail/communication directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no other legitimate purpose. The law goes on to state that anyone who cyberstalks someone else commits the offense of a felony of the third degree; however, the statute does not distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders.
Is this reasonable? Is it intelligent public policy to punish a teenager in the same manner you would an adult for an activity such as this? Many would point out that—regardless of whether it’s right or not—there are instances in our society where we punish teenagers and other minors less severely for making mistakes under the presumption that they are not of age or mature enough yet to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
Juvenile Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are a minor who has been charged with a third-degree felony, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney right away so as to protect your rights. Contact our dedicated Florida and Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys at the Baez Law Firm to find out how we can help.