In an attempt to keep law current with technology, the Pennsylvania legislature has amended Section 2709 of the Crimes Code, Harassment, which goes into effect on September 8, 2015. The content was revised to address concerns that arise when a child is harassed by electronic means. While “electronic means” is not defined in the amended section of the law itself, supporting memoranda indicate that the concern was with email and social networking [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.].
The law’s amendment provides that a child who experiences emotional distress due to cyber harassment may press charges against a child or an adult, resulting in a third degree misdemeanor if the accused is found guilty. To be found guilty, a court must find that the accused engages in “a continuing course of conduct of” either making “seriously disparaging statement or opinions” about a child or threatens to inflict harm via electronic means “with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm.”
- “Seriously disparaging statements or opinions” include those about a child’s physical characteristics, sexuality, sexual activity or mental or physical health condition. These are statements or opinions in which one intends, and/or under the circumstances, are reasonably likely to cause serious emotional distress [temporary or permanent mental anguish] to a child of the victim’s age and which produces some physical manifestations of distress.
- “Course of conduct” is a pattern of actions committed over a period of time, even if short. The actions could include: lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, drawings, caricatures or actions, either in person or anonymously.
What does this mean for Pennsylvania school districts?
Schools may be responsible for notifying police of possible cyber harassment and cooperating with any investigation, however, ultimately the police will decide if there are grounds for prosecution.
Schools may find themselves being drawn into the middle of factual disputes over whether acts taken by students or parents establish a “course of conduct” occurring during school time, on or off campus, that rise to the level of “seriously disparaging,” and result in a physical manifestation of distress. These are not disputes for schools to resolve. If the acts of a student(s) or parent(s) are in question, the school may have to provide a court with documentation, and possibly testimony, as to when/how certain offenses occurred if they occurred during school time and/or activities, or if the subsequent effects of the acts on alleged victims interrupted school time and/or activities.
Finally, the changes to this law may require districts to revise their cyber bullying policies to ensure that the proper people are notified and that district personnel keep thorough and detailed documentation of any and all student reports of alleged cyber harassment. If your district needs assistance in drafting these revisions, or if you have any questions about the implications of these changes to the law, please contact the School Law Group.