In the summer of 2011, Grace McComas of Howard County was subpoenaed as a witness against a young man who had hurt her. He quickly began a sustained and vicious campaign of targeted harassment. Because he used Facebook and Twitter, both Grace and her peers could see his vile posts, such as, “Snitches need to have their fingers cut off one by one while they watch their families burn” and “Next time my name rolls off your tongue, choke on it…and die.” And that was merely the tip of the iceberg. Grace endured even worse abuse, unsuitable for print.
When Grace’s parents learned about this abuse, they tried to protect her. Earlier this year Ms. McComas testified before my Judiciary Committee in the General Assembly that she and her husband “did all the things ‘bullying experts’ say to do. We found her support, we informed the school, the police, the state’s attorney and the courts…” Despite their efforts, no one was able to make the abuse stop or hold the guilty party accountable. Their hands were tied by outdated laws, written long before the internet became an all-pervasive presence in our lives.
After almost a year of this horror, Grace took her own life on Easter Sunday 2012. She was 15 years old. Before the bullying began, she lived the happy life of a girl with “sparkling blue eyes and a personality to match. She was funny, often exuberantly happy and kind-hearted, which made her a joy to be around.”
Many parents might understandably become focused on retribution after losing a child. Chris and David McComas, however, chose to honor Grace’s memory and the kindness she showed towards others by working to protect other children from cyberbullying.
As we enter the second month of a new school year, this issue remains all too relevant. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 59% of American teens have experienced cyberbullying. Meanwhile, youth suicide rates have been steadily climbing. Among teens, suicide is now the second leading cause of death. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, confirmed what far too many parents already know: “victims of cyberbullying are at a greater risk…of both self-harm and suicidal behaviors.” To stop this cyberbullying epidemic, we must ensure our laws keep up with technological change.
In 2013, working with the McComas family and other anti-bullying advocates, I sponsored Grace’s Law. It prohibited anyone from using the internet to “maliciously engage in a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress on a minor or places a minor in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.” While Grace’s Law gave Maryland the most ambitious anti-cyberbullying law in the country when it passed, cyberbullying has continued to evolve alongside online communication.
This year, working with Sen. Bobby Zirkin, my colleagues in the General Assembly, anti-bullying advocates and the ACLU, I sponsored Grace’s Law 2.0, strengthening existing penalties for cyberbullying, empowering authorities to take action after a single significant act of online harassment and specifically criminalizing the inducement of a minor to commit suicide. It is landmark legislation, ensuring that Maryland remains a national model for protecting children.
Americans are divided on many issues. Thankfully, protecting children is not one of them. Grace’s Law 2.0 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and was signed by Governor Hogan on April 18th.
Curbing online harassment requires us all to work together. School administrators and law enforcement officials need to pay greater attention to the challenges young people face today, parents need to keep track of what their children are doing online, and we must all ensure our words and our actions contribute to a culture of kindness and civility.
Del. Jon S. Cardin (firstname.lastname@example.org) represents District 11 in Baltimore County. Legislative Aide Peter Sicher contributed to this piece.