Law enforcement, social services warn of cyberbullying

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — A roomful of adults learned Thursday that when social media among juveniles turns anti-social, it sometimes requires the intervention of law enforcement officials, a crisis response therapist or both.

The four-hour session at the Frederick County Public Schools administration building zeroed in on the phenomenon of cyberbullying, an online version of some of the traditional, low-tech forms of abuse that children heap on each other.

Representatives from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney office and Northwestern Community Services painted a sobering picture for the 50 or so audience members, many of them concerned parents and educators.

Frederick County Capt. Aleck Beeman told of a local high school baseball player who shared a digital nude photo of an ex-girlfriend to cheer up teammates who were brooding after a loss.

Beeman said the student may not have realized it, but he could have been prosecuted under the state’s child pornography statutes that ban production and distribution of such material. The age of the boy or girl does not shield him or her from prosecution.

“They don’t understand the whole child pornography thing,” Frederick County Lt. Tonya Kittoe said of juveniles who transmit sexually explicit photos of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends during short-lived romances.

After a break-up, aggrieved parties sometimes post the same intimate photos in cyberspace where they remain permanently for others to view.

The online posting of sexually explicit photos by juveniles and for juveniles is only one of a long list of offenses that have evolved with online communications over the years, Beeman said.

“It’s hard to identify bullying,” Beeman said. “It’s not as clearcut as it used to be.”

Cyberbullying often involves the sending or posting of text or photos intended to humiliate, blackmail, threaten, reject, or isolate a targeted individual, according to Kittoe. But she cautioned that bullying, online or offline, is not a crime by itself under Virginia law.

Instead, police and prosecutors look for certain parts of online communications that may constitute lawbreaking. Kittoe cited a threat of physical violence as an example of a form of bullying that can be prosecuted.

Heather Enloe, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Winchester, urged parents and educators to report bullying to law enforcement, even in cases where the adults are unsure whether a crime has been committed.

Enloe said the state’s disorderly conduct statute can sometimes allow for successful prosecutions under circumstances where no other laws seem to fit.

“Even if you think there’s nothing else going on, we may be able to plug it in and come up with a viable charge,” Enloe said.

Erin Kline, a crisis response therapist with Northwestern Community Services, said bullies and their victims, especially those with mental disorders, are at higher risks of attempting suicide as a result of bullying, but the dangers should not be exaggerated.

“It’s important to remember most children involved in bullying do not become suicidal,” Kline said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com