The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 2, 2011

Online posting threat may have seemed like ‘Internet drama’ — but not to teen for which it was directed

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — For one teen girl, the threat she posted on an online site was just “Internet drama.” For the girl the threat was directed at, being killed the next day was very real.

“I’m killing her today at Autry,” was posted online for the bully’s victim to see, but someone else saw the comment. The threat was seen by an Autry Technology Center administrator, and Internet drama or not, the administrator then contacted police.

When the investigation began, the 18-year-old girl who posted the comment spoke with police and said she did not wish any harm to come to her 18-year-old classmate. The girl even said she wanted to talk to her victim to work things out.

“Although she may not have intended to carry out the threat she communicated, I don’t know how the threat could be interpreted in any other way,” District Attorney Mike Fields said. “We believe it could be, or will be, carried out. We assume that it will.”

The 18-year-old girl was charged with a misdemeanor count of threatening to perform an act of violence. She pleaded guilty to the charge, receiving a one-year deferred sentence. The terms of her probation end Feb. 11.

Fields said this “Mean Girls” type of bullying may not have been taken seriously by the bully, but it gave the victim in the case cause for concern.

Oklahoma currently has no laws that specifically reference bullying or address the growing problem of bullying behaviors. However, prosecutors and law enforcement officers can enforce a handful of existing statutes to combat bullying behavior.

“Although there are no laws that specifically criminalize bullying, there are several existing laws that criminalize behaviors commonly associated with bullying,” Fields said.

Assault, assault and battery, threatening to perform an act of violence and stalking can deal with extreme cases of bullying but are not a cure-all remedy for bullying’s torturous results, nor do they cover all types of bullying behavior.

Enid Police Department spokesman Lt. Eric Holtzclaw said the statutes address bullying behavior once it crosses a criminal threshold.

He said if unwanted contact is being made via social networking sites or text messages, take steps to reduce the amount of contact a victim has with their bully.

“Deleting them off your Facebook, deleting them from your accounts,” he said. “Have their numbers blocked or get a new number.”

Juvenile Division Detective Nick John said most bullying police investigate occurs through social networking sites.

“Parents should monitor their child’s use of social networking sites,” John said. “If bullying is occurring, notify campus police or local law enforcement.”

If the bullying involves unwanted contact, or a specific threat, a protective order may be obtained through the district courts.

“If a threat is made you can obtain a protective order,” he said. “If you perceive it as harassment, there are statutes that deal with harassing calls,” Holtzclaw said. “But you have to make it known to the person it is unwanted contact. Put it in an e-mail, put it in writing that their actions are harassing in nature and all contact is no longer wanted.”

Officers also advise if harassing phone calls, text messages or other unwanted behaviors from a bully occur, document those behaviors the best you can. Evidence of the unwanted behavior could be used in an investigation or when prosecutors file a case.

“If they feel bullying has crossed the line into criminal behavior, then that person should make a report with a law enforcement agency,” Fields said.

He said while technology has allowed bullying behaviors to flourish more quickly, it also has provided investigators with more evidence of the behaviors.

“The technology has made it easier to get a message to a broader audience more than it was before,” Fields said. “The technology has helped our ability to prosecute cases that have involved some use of technology, whether it is a computer or a phone.”

He said investigators can retrieve messages from cell phones, have hard drives of computers examined and trace where cell phone calls were made using current technology.

“All of those are technologies prosecutors and law enforcement have been able to use,” Fields said.

The use of the technology can show a pattern of behavior that has escalated over time or show the context of a statement made in time. It also adds meaning and intent to the threats being made.

“There’s no question that type of information can help law enforcement and the criminal justice system address bullying,” Fields said.

The case of the two 18-year-old girls was handled like any other criminal case.

A report was made with law enforcement, law enforcement conducted an investigation and forwarded it to the district attorney’s office, the district attorney’s office then evaluated the case to see if the evidence supported a criminal charge.

“If the evidence does support a criminal charge then we would file a case,” Fields said. “In this case it did.”

Holtzclaw said when officers investigate a case pertaining to bullying at school, the investigator often works with administrators where the bullying took place.

“Obviously, if it was in a school we would involve school officials and administrators,” he said. “If it were a business we would involve their human resources office in our investigation.

“The best remedy in most cases is to work with those in charge of those areas to take action first.”

With no specific criminal statutes dealing with bullying behaviors, using company or school policies may be the first line of defense against bullying. Creating a statute to criminalize bullying may be difficult for legislators, Fields said.

“Bullying behavior encompasses such a wide range of behavior it seems like to me it would be difficult to write a statute that covers such a wide range of behavior,” he said. “I think the current laws in place certainly allow us to address behavior that moves beyond mere talk and whether they are threatening.”

But, the district attorney said there could be merit for such legislation.

“It could certainly be useful,” he said. “I’m not sure how you could determine what that conduct is that would allow us to criminalize it.”

“The current statutes appear to be adequate to cover the situations that deal with bullying, from a criminal perspective,” Holtzclaw said.

Working with current statutes and with other community and business leaders, bullying behavior could be curbed.

“It’s going to take schoolteachers, school administrators, the criminal justice system, law enforcement and parents or guardians and also students,” Fields said. “Each of those groups can do things to address the problem.”

Whether bullying involves adults or children, something can be done to prevent the behavior from occurring.

“All of us in the community have an interest in doing what we can to ensure our children and young people have the best opportunity to learn and be as safe as they can in an environment that we can provide them,” Fields said. “It’s a problem we need to play our part to address.”