Skip to main content

It's time to outlaw bullying

By Mark O'Mara
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
In his project about the invisible pain caused by bullying, photographer Rich Johnson had professional makeup artists simulate injuries on children's bodies. The wounds feature a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents. In his project about the invisible pain caused by bullying, photographer Rich Johnson had professional makeup artists simulate injuries on children's bodies. The wounds feature a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents.
HIDE CAPTION
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
If bullying left scars ...
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: In my practice of law, I've seen the devastating effects of bullying
  • O'Mara: Bullying is the intentional and systematic harassment of a person
  • He says we need to make bullying illegal and protect kids who are victims
  • O'Mara: We don't want to outlaw childhood, but we can't let kids be abusive

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN legal analyst. He is a criminal defense attorney who frequently writes and speaks about issues related to race, guns and self-defense in the context of the American criminal justice system. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I got involved in the conversation about bullying after a young Central Florida girl, Rebecca Sedwick, leapt to her death from a water tower in an abandoned industrial plant on September 9, 2013. She had been aggressively bullied by other girls. After one of the girls commented about the suicide on Facebook -- essentially admitting to the bullying and showing no remorse -- Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd arrested the girl. The charges were soon dropped, however, as bullying is not a crime.

In my practice of family law and criminal defense, I know firsthand that while bullying may not be a crime, it can have devastating effects on young victims.

I've seen bullying victims' grades sharply decline. I've seen victims have to change their class schedules -- or change schools completely -- because a school was unable or unwilling to address the behavior of the bully. And, of course, there have been suicides.

Bullying is not name calling. It's not a little harmless schoolyard razzing. Bullying is the systematic harassment of an individual with the intent to cause substantial emotional distress.

The important elements here are "systematic harassment" and "substantial emotional distress." It can include social ostracism, "slut-shaming," extortion, sexual extortion, and more.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Last year I proposed a bill in Florida that would have defined bullying and made it illegal. A similar bill drafted by Florida state Sen. David Simmons was introduced, but unfortunately died in appropriations. Nonetheless, over the next year I'll be campaigning for the bill to be reintroduced, and I'll work to rally support for the bill so we can get a sensible law on the books to protect children who are victims of bullying.

In Carson, California, earlier this month, City Council member Mike Gipson led the charge to pass an ordinance to make bullying an act punishable by a fine for the first two offenses, and with a misdemeanor charge on the third offense. It, too, failed to pass, and I'm afraid the failure is due to opinions like that of the mayor of Portersville, California, who recently said, "I'm against bullying, but I'm getting damn tired of it being used as a mantra for everything and the ills of the world, when all most people have to do is grow a pair and stick up for them damn selves."

Those who oppose laws against bullying raise valid concerns. We don't want to outlaw childhood. We don't want to criminally punish kids for being kids. We don't want to make it illegal to call people names. (Who would judge such a thing anyway?)

We need to teach our children that they must know how to deal with confrontation and adversity. We should not, however, allow our children to be the victims of systematic harassment designed to inflict emotional distress.

Those who oppose laws against bullying have quoted the old phrase "sticks and stones." I think the people who take a "sticks and stones" attitude have never had a chance to witness the effects of bullying. Verbal abuse and emotional distress, after all, leave no visible scars -- until now.

Photographer Rich Johnson recently completed a photo project designed to illustrate the invisible pain caused by verbal abuse. For his project, Rich called upon the skills of professional makeup artists who simulated injuries on children's faces or arms, and in the wounds featured a hurtful word -- a word chosen by the participants and their parents.

The results are arresting. A little girl with the word "moron" bruised into her neck. A teenager with the word "slut" emerging form a massive bruise on her cheek. A grown man with the word "worthless" smeared in blood across his face. Some are words that are not appropriate to publish here -- yet they are words that people have been called.

I think people who oppose efforts to craft anti-bully laws should look at the photos from this project and read some of the stories. Sure, the injuries are simulated, but these photos are provocative, and they've prompted an outpouring of feedback. The photographer shared this comment with me, submitted to him through the project page on Facebook:

"Seeing the pictures that are a part of your project brought tears to my eyes because I can completely relate. Words cut deeper than any object ever could especially when they come from people that you care about and thought cared about you as well."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT