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Anticrime group calls for laws to curb 'cyberbullying'

To target "new pernicious threat," Congress urged to pass laws funding antibullying programs in every school.

WASHINGTON--A national anticrime group on Thursday urged Congress to pass new laws this year targeting the practice of "cyberbullying," a growing problem the group says will plague at least 13 million American children during the next school year.

Mean, threatening, or embarrassing messages delivered online and via portable devices like cell phones are a "pernicious threat that awaits our kids when they go back to school," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said at a press conference here hosted by Fight Crime: Invest In Kids, a nonprofit advocacy organization composed of 3,000 police chiefs, prosecutors, law enforcement leaders and crime victims.

According to a recent survey of 1,000 youth commissioned by the organization, one in three teenagers ages 12 to 17 and one in six children ages 6 to 11 have found themselves victims of cyberbullying--translating to about 13 million youth nationwide. Ten percent of the teens and 4 percent of the younger children claimed to be threatened with physical harm online. Thirty percent of the younger children and half of the teens and preteens never told their parents about their troubles.

"Cyberbullying is increasing and can be a serious problem for victims and their families," said Charlotte, N.C. Police Chief Darrel Stephens, who helped to found the anticrime group about ten years ago.

Parents should be the first line of defense, said the organization, which offered a list of 10 tips (click for PDF) for helping protect their offspring against emboldened, and often anonymous, online bullies. But Congress must help, too, it added, urging passage of a bill introduced last February by Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, that would provide funding for bullying and harassment prevention programs in schools.

Congress has already made attempts at protecting children online among its top priorities in recent months, although its efforts have focused more intensely on the threat of adult-aged predators. Despite opposition from librarians and civil libertarians, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would effectively require that "chat rooms" and "social networking sites" be rendered inaccessible to minors on computers at schools and libraries receiving certain federal subsidies.

David Kass, Fight Crime's executive director, said in response to a question from CNET News.com that he was not familiar with that proposal, known as the Deleting Online Predators Act, and therefore could not comment on its prospects for effectiveness in the cyberbullying realm.

Thursday's press conference shined a spotlight on Kylie Kenney, a rising high school sophomore from Vermont, who spoke up about two run-ins with online harassment that she said ruined two years of her education and wrecked friendships.

First, two classmates allegedly concocted a Web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated," which made threats and homophobic remarks about the then eighth-grader. Then another classmate snapped up an instant messaging screen name similar to Kylie's and allegedly began bombarding her female field hockey teammates with offers of dates and other overtures. Police ultimately investigated the episodes and filed juvenile proceedings against the alleged harassers.

"I had no escape," said Kylie, 15, who ultimately was home-schooled before heading to a new high school. "Everything followed me to school."