Milton gets tough on cyberbullies

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Thursday, January 12, 2012
— The city of Milton is eyeing an ordinance that could allow police to fine youths and adults for cyberbullying and other forms of electronic harassment.

The city’s public safety committee on Wednesday asked city staff to draw up a draft ordinance that would adopt a state statute barring “unlawful use of a computerized communication system.”

The recommendation came from Milton school resource officer Jim Martin. Martin says he wanted a local rule that would allow police to handle complaints of computerized bullying and harassment over social networking sites such as Facebook.

The ordinance would include citations and possibly fines. It would apply to adults, but it would be geared toward use within the school district, Martin said.

“It would include anything electronically that’s threatening, obscene and posted or done repetitively to bother somebody else,” said Martin. “Really, it’s the obscenities and the threats that concern us the most. I get so much of it up here (at the schools),” Martin said.

Martin said most youth cyberbullying happens off school grounds, but it can bleed into school. For instance, a cruel Facebook posting about another student can feed into the school rumor mill, causing strife for students during the school day.

Other times, students can use social media sites to escalate arguments that have occurred either on or off school grounds. That can lead to fights at school, Martin said.

The ordinance would augment an anti-harassment ordinance the city put into place in 2010. That rule is designed to curb harassment citywide for all ages, but city officials say the ordinance allows authorities to prosecute face-to-face youth bullying complaints through the city’s municipal court.

It’s intended to be a stopgap to handle harassment and bullying that doesn’t necessarily rise to state charges. Maximum fines for the ordinance are $100 for first-time offenders and $500 for subsequent offenses.

“We probably should have just adopted this as the same time as the harassment. The old one covers harassment over the phone, but we needed something including computer-based harassment,” Martin said.

The city of Janesville has a similar ordinance in place. It was added in 2011 as an extension to the city’s ordinance on annoying phone calls, Janesville Police Sgt. Brian Vaughn said.

Fines for the Janesville ordinance are set at $389 for adults and $200 for juveniles, Vaughn said. He said most complaints for cyberharassment come from adults—not juveniles.

There is no suggested fine for the possible Milton ordinance.

Martin expects police would use the ordinance in a way similar to the city’s anti-harassment rule—sparingly.

“It hasn’t been used extensively. Typically, it’s a documented warning. If they come back and bully the person a second time, then the citation comes. But usually when I talk to them, it ends. I make it clear I’m documenting it, and it ends,” Martin said.

Last updated: 7:20 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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