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California city close to finalizing tough anti-bullying ordinance

If kids continue to say the darndest things, one city in California could force children as young as kindergarten to fork over more than their lunch money.

If kids continue to say even the darndest things, one city in Southern California could soon force children as young as kindergarten to fork over more than just their lunch money. The city of Carson, a southern suburb of Los Angeles, is in the final stages of enacting a tough new anti-bullying law – one getting mixed reviews.

The ordinance targets kindergarteners through adults age 25 who make another person feel “terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested” with no legitimate purpose. First-time offenders will be fined $100 and $200 for a second infraction, while a third offense could bring a criminal misdemeanor charge.

“Bullies don’t just strike once,” said Carson City Councilman Mike Gipson, who co-authored the motion. “It is a continuous pattern where the bully is stalking, terrorizing, and threatening their victim. One can point to a pattern that leads to the abuse.”

The punishments would be different for children, as opposed to adults. Young offenders would still be subject to fines, but Gipson says the burden to pay the penalty would fall on the parents or guardians. It’s the hope of Carson lawmakers that after paying fines, parents will get proper help for their child, like involving them in more after-school programs or community outreach. Adult offenders would be charged with either an infraction or a misdemeanor, which could come with jail time.

“We’re not talking about throwing children in jail,” Gipson told msnbc Wednesday. “We believe that if a citation has to be issued, that corrective measures have to be implemented. It is our hope that [bullies] will get the help they need.”

Gipson cites the need for this ordinance after a school-aged child in Carson recently committed suicide after being bullied at school. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young Americans, with about 4,400 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it’s unclear how many, if any, of those deaths had a direct link to bullying, the CDC says at least 14% of high school students who’ve admitted being bullied on a weekly basis have considered suicide.

A Carson City Council report calls bullying a problem that impacts 28% of students in grades 6-12 and those numbers climb if a child is overweight, disabled, or gay. However, while opponents agree the issue of bullying needs to be addressed, they take issue with how the ordinance defines the behavior. The ACLU of Southern California calls the proposed statute “vague” and “overbroad.”

“We understand where the City Council is coming from, but we believe there is a much better approach,” said Brendan Hamme, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “We need to ensure schools have implemented anti-bullying programs, ones where negative behavior is addressed a method that is short of punitive damage.”

The proposal in Carson is not a new idea, but has the ability to go much further than any existing laws on the books. Every state except Montana has some form of anti-bullying legislation. Carson’s measure would expand California’s current law on the definition of bullying to include harassment and online activities, known as cyberbullying. Bullying attacks via the Internet have seen a rise in recent years with the advancement of social media like Facebook and Twitter – and it’s the cyberbullying language that has many First Amendment proponents worried. City lawmakers are aiming to fill what they describe 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.”  The current California law explicitly spells out that a bully’s conduct be done with the intent to harass or intimidate; Carson’s language will allow for a much broader interpretation of bullying.

“This is very much a First Amendment issue,” Hamme told msnbc Wednesday. “One of the problems here is what constitutes a ‘legitimate purpose.’ [The measure] defines cyberbullying in extraordinarily broad terms like sending hurtful and rude text messages, so you can see how much everyday behavior is included in this law.”

Despite prominent and vocal critics, the ordinance is expected to clear a final reading next week and go into effect sometime in June, but how it would be implemented is a bit less clear. Since police are usually not present to witness every bullying attack, law enforcement officers would rely on interviews with victims and suspects to determine whether a violation has been committed.  

The City Council passed the ordinance unanimously earlier this month. Mayor Jim Dear, a public school teacher, supports the measure, with the goal of making the city “bully-free.” A final reading and vote on the measure by the City Council is set for Tuesday. If it passes as expected, it will be enacted in 30 days.