Sheri Lynn discovered that her 13-year-old daughter was being cyberbullied three years ago when she came across the girl unconscious in the hallway.
She had taken a bottle of pills in a suicide attempt.
"If I hadn’t gone home earlier that day, my daughter would be dead," said Sheri Lynn, who asked that her last name not be used out of concern for her daughter.
According to a survey by the University of Hawaii at Manoa this year, one out of every 10 students in Hawaii’s schools is a victim of cyberbullying — acts of digital harassment, intimidation, annoyance, libel and humiliation that can be as simple as sending unwanted texts or as elaborate as staging a fight on school grounds, recording it with a cellphone camera and uploading it to YouTube.
Whether cyberbullies should be subject to criminal penalties is under debate as the state Senate considers House Bill 688, which would require schools to enact policies to address the problem of cyberbullying.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Clayton Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) took out the enforcement provisions Thursday. The earlier version would have made chronic cyberbullying a class C felony with a minimum sentence of five years in prison and first-time cyberbullying offenses misdemeanors with minimum sentences of 48 hours in jail.
Some lawmakers say that prosecuting students who take their bullying online is a vital part of ensuring that the law keeps pace with technology.
"I think it’s extremely important that before we give a child access to a computer or a telephone that we realize the responsibility there that lies with technology," said Rep. Karen Awana (D, Kalaeloa-Nanakuli), the original sponsor of the bill.
But other lawmakers, including Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland (D, Kalihi-Liliha), say they believe that criminalizing bullying in all instances is not the answer.
"I think it’s important to know that jail could be a consequence so people know how serious a problem bullying is," Chun-Oakland said. "But I think just as important are opportunities for people that are doing this to learn so they don’t keep repeating it."
For the parents of those victimized, a bill without penalties would fall short.
Sheri Lynn said she helped her daughter download the offensive material and showed it to her school’s dean.
However, she said, the perpetrators got away with a slap on the wrist.
"Every day, children are being attacked and nobody is accountable," said Shirley Jones, who told lawmakers her grandson has been harassed repeatedly.
"I’m hoping that this law you’re proposing infuses penalties even for little kids," she said.