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County Prosecutor Busts Cyber-Bullying, Sexting Myths Among Local Teens

Chief of the Macomb County Prosecutor's sex crimes unit Jean Cloud gave L'Anse Creuse North students a crash course in the legal consequences of engaging in cyber-bullying and sexting in Michigan.

Michigan’s new anti-bullying law may not address cyber-bullying specifically, but as Macomb County prosecutor Jean Cloud told students Thursday, there are a number of other laws that can be used to prosecute such offenses.

“Ignorance of the law is not bliss and ignorance of the law is not a defense,” Cloud said.

Cloud, who serves as chief of the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office’s sex crimes unit, gave several hundred teens a crash course in the legal ramifications of cyber-bullying and sexting Thursday as part of L’Anse Creuse High School North’s effort to educate its students on the dangers and consequences of engaging in both.

According to the prosecutor’s office, 30 percent of youth in the U.S., or 5.7 million, are estimated to be involved in bullying, with incidents of cyber-bullying growing daily.

“The bully could be anybody in this room,” Cloud told students. “Anyone sitting behind a computer.”

Unfortunately, “teens and adults don’t take cyber-bullying seriously,” she added.

When put to a vote, more than half of the students in the room raised their hands in agreement that cyber-bullying is “not a big deal.”

However, the room fell silent when students heard the story and saw hospital photos of Deerfield Beach Middle School student Josie Lou Ratley, who suffered serious brain damage following a beating by a boy she had bullied through text messages.

Although Ratley was the bully in this case, her comments to Wayne Treacy, only 15 years old at the time, provoked him to don a pair of steel toe boots, track the then 13-year-old Ratley down and kick her repeatedly in the head.

In this case, the text messages that so many consider “no big deal,” ended in a first-degree attempted murder charge and possible 50-year prison sentence for a teen still only 17 years old.

Although Treacy was only 15 at the time of his crime, the premeditated nature led Florida courts to charge him as an adult.

A choice Cloud said she would have copied. 

“In Michigan I’ve charged a lot of 15-year-olds as adults,” Cloud said. “In Macomb County, we would have charged him as an adult as well.”

For Cloud, the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a lie.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words have an everlasting impact,” she said.

And with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, those words are no longer private. Regardless of the form, an Internet-based post that can be considered threatening, terrorizing or harassing can be prosecuted as cyber-bullying.

Students are free to vent about their teachers, but once that “I hate you. You should die” message hits the Internet, that post can translate to a two-year felony.

Sexting: Busting the Myths

While 16 is the age of consent to have sex in Michigan, it is illegal to take or send a photo of an individual under age 18.

This may sound like a double standard, but taking or distributing photos of a minor (under age 18) is considered child pornography and can translate to a 20-year felony, $100,000 fine and lifetime registration on the sex offender’s list.

“It’s a violation of the law and we will prosecute,” Cloud said.

And to the student who asked, “What if they don’t know?”

“That is 10 times worse,” Cloud replied. “Use your common sense.”

So here’s something to consider:

  • Even if the “sexting” is between two minors, it remains a felony in Michigan. Penalty: 20-year felony, $100,000 fine, lifetime registration on sex offender’s list
  • If you send someone else a “sext,” or you receive one and pass it along, you can be charged with distributing child pornography. Penalty: seven-year felony, $50,000 fine
  • If you receive a “sext” and keep that image on your cell phone, you can be charged with possession of child pornography. Penalty: four-year felony, $10,000 fine
Jenny Whalen December 09, 2011 at 03:36 PM
What do you think? Do we need explicit laws to crack down on cyber-bullying, or are we making a mountain out of the molehill of childhood?
Bren Jones December 09, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Mountain out of a molehill, absolutely not. I serve as a volunteer working with cyberbullying victims and it is the most devastating, vicious and cowardly form of bullying that exist. I realize bullying has been around forever but at least you had sanctuary at home, now it is 24/7 and can destroy a reputation. This type of bullying has led to a growing number of suicides. For those of you apathetic to this issue, let me extend you an invitation to come speak in front of some of the groups I have worked with who have been cyberbullied. Do you have the guts to tell a child who is scared to come out of their bedroom to ignore it or perhaps a handicapped child that was mocked on the worst of the cyberbullying sites, Topix (that vile site doesn't even make its users register and has an anything goes mentality) Would you like to offer a job to a person who lost their business because of lies told on the internet? Would you be willing to tell a mother "tough" whose child committed suicide over cyberbullying? Cyberbullying is a devastating problem that is growing worse, and it isn't just a children's issues, many adults are bullied as well especially on sites like Topix and others. Cyberbullying is an assault on another person and if you are cowardly enough to assault someone behind a keyboard then you should be punished accordingly. There is no such thing as absolute free speech.
Jenny Whalen December 09, 2011 at 05:29 PM
I've listened to a great many speakers in schools, but parents are not in schools. Are there websites you would recommend for parents looking to learn more about this and how to address it at home?
Nathan Baker January 03, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Good article, but I take issue with the statement that "Ratley was THE bully" in her case (emphasis added). The full transcript of their text exchange shows that BOTH Ratley and Treacey were taunting each other and crossing lines they shouldn't have. They were both trying to bully each other. And despite the rumors otherwise, Treacey threatened to attack and kill Ratley even before she mentioned his brother's suicide. To see the transcript, Google "Transcript of Treacy-Ratley text exchange."

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