10/24/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Should We Begin the Criminalization of Online Harassment in the Classroom?

"Cyber" bullying, a term that has been popularized as the evolution of schoolyard bullying to the online world using online tools, such as text messaging and social networking services, has become a buzz phrase whose presentation should be cause for concern. The behavior may take place online, but the consequences are certainly not limited to being "cyber."

What we are still calling bullying is actually, in many cases, harassment perpetrated at victims who have no recourse and no one, an advocate or protector, who is taking the appropriate steps to support them. While there are varying levels of this behavior that have occurred in the schoolyard since any of us can remember, there are incidents that turn the corner from teasing to harassment that could be defined as criminal if the perpetrator were an adult.

While we spend much time protecting children, we are now forced to decide how we deal with this behavior when it becomes decidedly criminal. If one omits the fact that children are engaging in this behavior vis-à-vis one another, we find systematically perpetrated attacks in which people are using technology to harass others. We would probably agree that degrees of this type of behavior are criminal while others should have civil consequences within our legal system. While we do, in fact, in some states criminalize this behavior for adults, the consequences are not uniform and victims are often left without recourse. Should we begin enforcing harsher punitive consequences for this behavior at an earlier age with the hope of curbing this behavior as children transition into adulthood?

The question with children is whether we want to manage these cases of harassment under a punitive framework, using the legal system to enact consequences for these behaviors in severe cases, or whether we want to use a rehabilitative approach, hoping that society's institutions that care for children, such as schools, can correct these behaviors before these children and teenagers are released into the world as adults.

There are two cases to which we should pay particular attention as they may serve to shape the approach we take against children and teenagers who perpetrate harassment against other children and teenagers, on and offline. One is of a high school junior in Plano, TX, who has the mental capacity of an 8 year-old child. The other is of a twelve year-old Florida girl whose harassment caused her to take her life.

The first case involves the systematic harassment of a handicapped teenager. Shea Shawhan is an eighteen year-old high school junior in Plano, TX. She is a cheerleader and softball player. She also gets persistently sent messages that read, "Hey ugly slut," "Ur so fugly kill urself" and "I'm pretty sure ur going to hell. God doesn't like sluts. U need to be cleaned." In the course of this harassment, the perpetrators taunt, "You think u can find out who I am because that's pathetic."

Who behaves like this? Who harasses a teenager with the mental faculties of an eight year-old in such a vicious fashion? The perpetrators are sophisticated enough to use web technologies to mask the numbers the harassing text messages are being sent from. Adding insult to injury, the perpetrators taunt Shea and her mother that they will not be able to discover who they are.

The second case is one that has received national attention. Rebecca Sedwick was a twelve year-old girl who was systematically harassed on and offline. Rebecca jumped from the roof of a concrete plant in September. The response from one of her tormentors? A callous Facebook post that read," "Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF." This past week, two teenagers who were involved in the tormenting were arrested in Polk County, Florida, in connection with Rebecca's death.

Should we be throwing the book at these teenagers when they are supposed to be hitting the books? The failures of our legal system to properly address online harassment begin with our schools and with children. If the appropriate consequences are not put in place for harassment at this stage, negative online behaviors are simply being reinforced because there are no consequences. If there are no consequences at an age where the behavior can seemingly be corrected, what are we to expect of their behavior as they engage online as adults?

This is not simply limited to children while they are children: they become adults who may perpetrate similar behaviors online. While the issues of revenge porn and other forms of online harassment have received increased media attention over the last year, the legal system has yet to catch up with appropriate avenues for justice for those who are victimized by online harassment.

These are tough questions that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. While it is easy to implement parent and student awareness efforts for this behavior in our communities and schools, these labors must be accompanied by policies and punishments. It is easy to dismiss some of this behavior as "kids being kids," but when the lives and well being of many children, teenagers and adults are on the line, such flippant attitudes are irresponsible and, eventually, criminal in their own right.