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Politics

Legislation Takes Aim at Bullying, Cyberbullying

January 20, 2014 - 6:00pm

A bill filed in the Florida House and Senate aims to crack down on bullying in the Sunshine State. If passed, bullying would become a misdemeanor and aggravated bullying a third-degree felony.

The bill, HB 451, is sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers. It has also taken on a different name -- Rebeccas Law -- after Rebecca Sedwick, a 12 year-old girl from Polk County who authorities say committed suicide in September after being bullied by two of her classmates.

Sedwicks classmates were both charged with felony aggravated stalking, but the charges against them were later dropped.

The bill hits home for Fitzenhagen, who told Sunshine State News that not only does she have a 12-year-old daughter, but she was also a victim of bullying herself.

Its not something Ive ever forgotten, she said. Its something thats very real and it hit a chord with me.

Bullying is currently prohibited in Florida, but if passed, the new legislation would make bullying and cyberbullying a crime.

Fitzenhagen explained that a concerted effort to hurt others is what sets this type of bullying apart from merely saying one or two hurtful things.

Kids are always going to be kids and say the random comment, she said. But if you are engaged in a pattern of activity where each and every day you are sending inappropriate messages ... thats what Im talking about.

Under HB 451, those charged with bullying would have to engage in a pattern of activity which involv[es] a series of acts over any period of time which evidences a continuity of purpose.

On top of that, victims of bullying must feel theres a credible threat to the bullying that would cause them to fear for their safety. Ultimately, however, it would be up to a judge to determine whether the bullying in question would meet the criteria.

The bill has gathered the support of Sedwicks mother, Tricia Norman, who has vowed to help push the Legislature to pass the law to combat bullying she says ultimately took her daughters life.

"I don't want anyone to have to go through what my family has gone through," Norman said. "So, I think it's very important to get this passed, get this law into place."

On Monday, Fitzenhagen launched PassRebeccasLaw.com, a website designed to get the public involved in passing the bill. On the site, visitors can read the full text of the bill and sign a petition showing their support of the legislation.

Bullying has become increasingly more prevalent across Florida and across the United States, said Fitzenhagen. I wanted to be able to try to do something that would create a stronger dialogue and send a message across the entire state ... to say, We really need to talk about this, we need to educate on this, and we need to get it to stop.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen atAllison@sunshinestatenews.comor follow her on Twitter at @AllisonNielsen.

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