Students' backpacks are lined up outside their classroom, February 18, 2014 in San Jose, California.
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In surprise, California city rejects tough anti-bullying ordinance

In a surprise, the City Council of Carson, California, rejected an ordinance aimed at making the Los Angeles suburb the nation’s first zero-tolerance place for bullies. The measure would have been the nation’s toughest piece of anti-bullying legislation, but was defeated Tuesday night after sailing through a reading and vote by the full Council earlier this month. The second and final step was viewed to be a formality, after the measure received strong support from Councilmembers in a May 6 preliminary vote.  

The ordinance came under fire from several outside groups, including the ACLU and many anti-bullying organizations.  Opponents took issue with what they said was vague language and the overly-broad definition of bullying. Anyone from kindergartners through adults age 25 was targeted if they made another person feel “terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested” with no legitimate purpose. First-time offenders would be fined $100 and $200 for a second infraction, while a third offense could bring a criminal misdemeanor charge.

“The biggest issue you deal with is always ‘he said, she said,’” Thomas Rich said. Rich is the cyber safety expert for STOPit, an anti-cyberbullying school program. “As a parent, I know what I teach my kids and I have to provide them with the tools to be a good person.”

Punishments would have been different for children, as opposed to adults. Young offenders would still be subject to fines, but City Councilman Mike Gipson, who co-authored the ordinance, said the burden to pay the penalty would fall on the parents or guardians. It was the hope of Carson lawmakers that after paying fines, parents would get proper help for their child. Adult offenders would be charged with either an infraction or a misdemeanor, which could come with jail time.

Gipson appeared on msnbc Live Sunday to tout his ordinance and offered up why the legislation was needed, including a recent increase in cyberbullying with the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Calls to Gipson were not returned as of Wednesday morning.

“I like that [the ordinance] tried to put some bite into improper behavior, but I also think it was a very vague definition,” Rich told msnbc Wednesday.

The proposal in Carson had the ability to go much further than any existing laws on the books. Carson’s measure would have expanded California’s current law on the definition of bullying to include harassment and online activities, known as cyberbullying. City lawmakers wanted to fill what they described as a gap in state law by criminalizing harassment “engaged in willfully or intentionally” and in a way that demonstrates “intent to harass or abuse.”  Current California law explicitly spells out that a bully’s conduct be done with the intent to harass or intimidate; Carson’s language would have allowed for a much broader interpretation of bullying.

Carson Mayor Jim Dear, a public school teacher, supported the measure, with the goal of making the city “bully-free.” The ordinance would have been enacted in 30 days if it had passed last night.

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In surprise, California city rejects tough anti-bullying ordinance