Bullies will face tougher penalties under House, Senate bills

State Rep. Kyle Mullins, D-Lackawanna, speaks during a Capitol news conference on Tuesday, 11/19/19. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

When he was a young man, state Rep. Brandon Markosek was bullied over his speech impediment. He’s since conquered it, but the memory of that hazing stays with him.

“I’d go home, after students said some things to me that didn’t feel too good,” Markosek, D-Allegheny, recalled. “And I didn’t tell my parents about it.”

On Tuesday, Markosek joined with colleagues of both parties, from the state House and Senate, to roll out legislation that would enhance the penalties for chronic bullying, making it easier for prosecutors to punish offenders, and to assist victims in dealing with a trauma that, thanks to the advent of social media, can follow them through their lives.

“Our message today is clear: To the victims of bullying, we hear you, and stand with you. You’re strong enough to face whatever you’re going through,” said Rep. Kyle Mullins, D-Lackawanna, the sponsor of the House’s version of the bill, and the subject of childhood bullying himself. “To the bullies, enough is enough.”

The House legislation, and a companion Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Blake, D-Lacakwanna, would enhance the penalties for bullying-related offenses — for instance, a violation normally graded a summary offense would be upgraded to a misdemeanor under the legislation. It would also increase the penalties for repeat offenders.

“Our law and crimes code is antiquated,” Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell said during Tuesday’s Capitol news conference. “Bullying has been around forever. But because of cell phones and social media, it can become viral, and it’s there 24/7. It’s a permanent record on social media that can follow you through your life.”

Those assertions are backed up by the data.

Nationwide, about 20 percent of students aged 12 to 18 experienced being bullied, according to the 2017 School Crime Supplement compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice. According to that same study, 15 percent of students aged 12 to 18 reported that they were bullied online or by text message.

Similarly, about 19 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported being bullied on school property in the 12 months before participating in a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 17.3 percent of all Pennsylvania high school students reported being cyber-bullied, according to 2017 CDC data. The incidence of such bullying was higher among male students (23.5 percent) than among female students (11.3 percent), the CDC data indicated.

And according to the federal website StopBullying.gov, “Research indicates that persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior.”

Such was the case in Hanover, Pa., in 2018, when 14-year-old Brian Doll Jr. committed suicide as a result of bullying. His mother, Jessica Fortino Doll, along with Dawn Bosley, a member of the advocacy group, Be the Change, formed in the wake of Doll’s death, also appeared at the news conference.

Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams, who’s a co-sponsor of the House bill, called the legislation a first step.

“I have a young family and bullying is different now,” he said. “These children and families cannot escape bullying. It’s pervasive.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.