Ulman voices support for initiatives to criminalize cyberbullying

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman lent his support this week to a pair of bills in Annapolis that would make cyberbullying a crime in Maryland.

"The insults and accusations that rush through the cyber-sphere can be beyond anything with which we adults are familiar," said Ulman in written testimony submitted for a March 7 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

A House version of the bill, the subject of Thursday's hearing, is sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat. A Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican representing Howard County.

The bills seek to make it a specific crime in Maryland to use a computer or computer network to "cause a minor or another person to reasonably fear for his or her safety."

People would also be prohibited from using computers to "engage in conduct which would constitute sexual harassment of a minor [or] to disseminate data with the malicious intent to psychologically torment or harass a minor."

Violation would carry a penalty of up to one year in prison, a $500 fine, or both.

Ulman, a Democrat, said the bills "would create much-needed protections for young people in our community who are subjected to cyber-harassment."

"While it is difficult for our laws to keep pace with technology, we must make every effort to keep our children safe, healthy and thriving," Ulman said. "Increased attention on electronic harassment, with increased penalties, will help toward this goal."

Among those testifying on the bills — either in person or in submitted comments — were Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson.

Also testifying was Chris McComas, the mother of Grace McComas, a Glenelg High School student whose suicide in 2012 focused a spotlight on the issue of cyberbullying. Her parents cited hurtful messages on the social network Twitter as a key factor in their 15-year-old daughter's suicide.

"It's the Wild West out there and our children need protection," Chris McComas told legislators. "If it can happen to her, it could happen to anyone. And therein lies the horror because this should happen to no one."

Ulman did not mention Grace McComas specifically in his testimony on the pending legislation, but said, "I have met with parents of children who have been targets of bullying and harassment. Their stories are heart-rending. … Parents, teachers and other adults all have an important role to play in making sure that the electronic interactions involving young people cause as little harm as possible."

Cardin's bill was the subject of Thursday's hearing, and in a statement he said he was "touched and overwhelmed by the support this bill has received from all across the state, whether it is from elected officials, professional athletes, or bullied teens and their families."

According to Kittleman's legislative office, his version of the bill is slated for a hearing in Annapolis on March 20.

Reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this story.

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