Statement from the Pennsylvania Youth Congress on the General Assembly Passage of HB 229
Criminalization of Cyberbullying Expected to Harm Minority Youth Most
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Youth Congress expresses its concern with the unanimous passage on Monday of HB 229 from the State Senate. The legislation, championed by Rep. Ron Marsico (R-105), was approved by the State House of Representatives in a 193-5 vote in February 2015, and now awaits approval from Governor Wolf. The cyber-harassment bill provides for the specific criminalization of sexual-based cyberbullying – by both adults toward minors, and minors toward other minors.
The Pennsylvania Youth Congress recognizes the importance of diverse legal methods in addressing bullying and harassment. However, criminalization laws directed toward young people often are disproportionately and misapplied to youth of color, LGBT youth, and youth with disabilities. Further, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress calls for increased efforts toward bullying prevention and positive behavior support, to curb this type of behavior from occurring in the first place.
The Pennsylvania Youth Congress lauds the intentions and hard work of Rep. Marsico and others supporting this legislation. While HB 229 includes a provision for youth to be directed to a “diversionary program” before being placed into the juvenile justice system, school safety data does not provide evidence that it will be evenly applied to minority youth.
“In the rush to criminalize this behavior, we tend to pull ourselves away from meaningful violence prevention,” said Jason Landau Goodman, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress. “We are failing as a state when we prioritize reactive crime bills over proactive legislation to help secure positive futures for young Pennsylvanians. We need to send students engaging with this destructive behavior to school support staff – not funnel more into prison.”
“Bullying and harassment in schools should be addressed through proactive approaches to improving school climate,” said Nathan Smith, GLSEN’s Director of Public Policy. “We are disappointed that the Pennsylvania legislature has chosen to address these serious issues through the criminal justice system.
“GLSEN does not support policies that criminalize youth, particularly when those policies disproportionately affect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, who are three times as likely to have been involved with the criminal or juvenile justice system as a result of school-related infractions.“
The United States Department of Education – Office of Civil Rights found that there exists a significant racial discrepancy between students being referred to law enforcement (Civil Rights Data Collection 2014). Additionally, their report identified Pennsylvania was among 11 states in the country which have a rate higher than the national average of suspending more black students than white students. While non-white students comprised less than 30% of the Pennsylvania public school enrollment in 2011-2012 school year, the Office of Civil Rights identified that 93% of out-of-school suspensions were issued to them. Both black and hispanic Pennsylvania students were more than twice as likely to face suspension as were their white peers.
The Pennsylvania Youth Congress joins with the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Partnership, in a renewed call for the General Assembly to vote on the Pennsylvania Safe Schools (PASS) Act, HB 156. The PASS Act is the most supported safe school bill in state history, which garnered 106 co-sponsors last session in the House. HB 156 awaits action in the House Education Committee.