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Lawyer pushes for law to penalize parents of cyberbullies

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to bullying of teenagers.

Mark O'Mara has me thinking about my lack of oversight of our sons' use of social media.

O'Mara, the Florida trial lawyer who successfully defended George Zimmerman, is advocating criminal penalties for the parents of cyberbullies. The case that spurred his interest will certainly generate support for his initiative, but I'm not comfortable with where it leads.

Rebecca Sedwick, 12, took her own life by jumping from the water tower of an abandoned concrete plant in Polk County, Fla., in September. Her death came after she allegedly endured extended harassment from a 12-year-old and 14-year-old, the latter of whom is accused of posting on her Facebook page: "Yes IK (I know) I bullied REBECCA (A)nd she killed her self but IDGAF (I don't give a f—)."

The two girls have been charged with felony aggravated stalking, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Nearly three dozen states have enacted laws banning cyberbullying, but, if O'Mara gets his wish, Florida would become the first to hold the parents of cyberbullies criminally responsible.

"I do not intend to become a bill writer or lawmaker or anything like that; this just seemed to be screaming out for someone to take some action on it," he told me recently.

By the time we spoke, he'd already offered some of his legal rationale in a blog, writing: "If a child kills someone while using a parent's gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cellphone, provided by the parent, how is that different?"

With regard to the tragic death of Sedwick, O'Mara told me that the parents of the 14-year-old have suggested in interviews that they were supervising their daughter's use of her cellphone and laptop.

"I have to really look at that and say, 'How could you possibly be so unaware of what was going on when it was incessant for 11 months?' " O'Mara asked.

But if the standard for judging parents is how often they check their child's cellphone or Facebook page, I'll have a problem. Hardly a week goes by without my wife or me telling a story at the dinner table concerning bad behavior online that was pulled from the headlines or mined at our respective workplaces, always ending with our admonishment: "Be careful when you hit the send key."

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