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