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R.I. to combat cyberbullying

Cyberbullying prevention advocates are pressing forward with an attempt to present legislation in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Members of the Special Senate Commission on Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats are leading a series of town hall-style meetings with students and administrators before crafting the bill.

Sen. John Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield and North Smithfield, chairs the commission, which was created as a part of General Assembly legislation last year.

"The goal of the committee is to find a way to stop bullying in Rhode Island," Tassoni said. "That being said, we know as a committee that we won't be able to stop it wholeheartedly, but I know in my heart that we are going to put a dent in it."

Other members of the committee include Sen. Beatrice Lanzi, D-Cranston, Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, the chief judge of the Rhode Island Family Court and local high school principals and superintendents.

"I want to give the law enforcement and administration the tools they need to combat cyberbullying," Tassoni said. The current committee plans to enact legislation to curb the rise of cyberbullying, but specific details of the legislation are currently undecided, Tassoni said.

Tassoni has been working on the issue of cyberbullying since 2005, when he passed the "first piece of legislation in the country" on cyberbullying. A bill he sponsored in July 2008 defined cyberbullying as "textual, verbal or graphic harassment transmitted by computer, cell phone, telephone or other electronic device."

Cyberbullying has remained prevalent since Tassoni's first piece of legislation. According to a 2008 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 have been exposed to cyberbullying.

The committee's work has coincided with a recent development in a local cyberbullying case. A Smithfield High School sophomore was charged with cyberstalking after creating a Facebook profile under the name of a freshman girl and is set to appear before the Rhode Island Family Court. The profile featured the name "Halfafoot," a reference to the freshman's deformed foot. The accused student's actions would fall under the proposed new legislation, which, according to Tassoni, would not be age-specific.

Tassoni met with the state attorney general, the education commissioner and the state police to start ironing out details for the planned legislation on Jan. 31. The committee plans to file a final report to accompany the legislation this spring.

Lawrence Filippelli, assistant superintendent of Scituate Public Schools and a member of the committee, said he hopes the planned legislation will be a "balanced, comprehensive policy."

"I hope the policy is able to have real consequences without criminalizing the issue for kids," Filippelli said.

Filippelli's first interaction with cyberbullying occurred six years ago when he was principal of Scituate Middle School. "I started seeing objectionable behavior in seventh and eighth graders on MySpace," Filippelli said, "Parents had no clue what was going on."

Filippelli joined the committee because he felt that the "time had come to address the problem all around," adding that he wanted to be a voice of moderation. "I don't want (the legislation) to be too burdensome," he said. "Schools need to be able to review things on a case-by-case basis."

Pilar Garcia-Brown '11 said she would approve of efforts to target cyberbullying, which she called "downright cruel."

Andrew Betzo '11 said he was unimpressed by the legislation's focus on the electronic aspect of bullying. Cyberbullying is just "the same old bullying," he said. "Blaming the technology is just similar to blaming video games for violence."

The commission is organizing meetings in the community to gain information and student and school administrator input, Tassoni said. Meetings have already been held in Warwick, North Providence and Smithfield.


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