EAST GREENWICH –– To make it easier for the police to defuse bullying conflicts –– regardless of whether they occur at a local playground or in cyberspace –– the town is considering an ordinance that would outlaw the abusive behavior and spell out remedial options for offenders.
A new anti-bullying ordinance will be proposed to the Town Council Monday night, putting East Greenwich at the forefront of a statewide push against teens tormenting each other –– especially now that text messages, e-mails and Internet sites make it easy for bullies to be relentless and anonymous.
“We believe that everyone has the right to be safe, but technology definitely presents one of the biggest challenges,” said town substance-abuse coordinator Bob Houghtaling, who worked with Police Chief Thomas Coyle and Town Manager William Sequino in drafting the proposed ordinance. “Bullying has gone a long way from the kid in the lunchroom taking your milk money to something that can take place all day and all night long on your cell phone or your computer.”
While there are state laws that give the police the authority to prosecute bullying cases when they reach the level of harassment or assault, Houghtaling said that the goal was to craft something that allows officials to step in quickly and get youngsters the help they need before a situation escalates.
The ordinance is not intended to be punitive, he said, and instead focuses on programs, counseling and other services that can help bullies change their behavior.
“If you want to stop the cycle of abuse, you don’t want to castigate or ostracize the bully,” Houghtaling said. “Instead, you want to give them opportunities to learn and change.”
In cases where it is called for, the ordinance provides for cases to be sent to the town’s Juvenile Board and for restitution to be made in the event of any property damage. Coyle said it will not interfere with the police pursuing criminal charges when appropriate.
The ordinance describes bullying as physical acts that cause harm, threats and repeated “verbal, written or electronic expression” that causes emotional distress.
“I think the key word is ‘repeated,’ ” said Houghtaling, who has worked with local police and schools for more than 20 years in trying to combat substance abuse and promote healthy behaviors for youths.
Until recently, the task of dealing with bullying was left largely to the state’s school districts. In 2003, the General Assembly passed a law requiring all school districts to establish anti-bullying policies.
With fast-paced technology empowering bullies, however, the issue is now a matter of concern for more than just school officials. Parents and lawmakers alike are looking for ways to combat “cyber-bullying” and other inappropriate ways teens are using the Internet.
School administrators across the state report that they are spending more and more time defusing tensions that originated outside school walls, and there are reports nationwide of teens driven to suicide by bullies who used the Internet websites for smear campaigns or cell phones to send barrages of abusive messages.
Last week, it was learned that state police filed stalking charges against a 15-year-old Smithfield High School sophomore who allegedly harassed a fellow student using the popular website Facebook.
“It’s brutal –– it’s twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” said Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, who heads a special Senate committee to deal with the problem of cyber-bullying, Internet threats and more.
He commended East Greenwich’s effort, but said the problem needs to be addressed on a statewide basis and that he expects legislative initiatives.
Sequino said the proposed anti-bullying ordinance is an extension of the town’s long-running commitment to its youths.
The goal, Houghtaling said, is found in the final section of the draft ordinance. It states that the town will not only provide assistance to the offenders, but will also “ensure a safe environment for all [people] in East Greenwich.”