Cyberbullying in Missouri

As the internet and social media continue to grow in popularity as means for communication, so do instances of these electronic means being used to bully victims. Both Missouri’s school regulations and its criminal laws address this type of abusive behavior, which is commonly referred to as cyberbullying.

Missouri Schools’ Anti-bullying Policies

Under Missouri law, every school district within the state is required to have adopted an anti-bullying policy. The law defines bullying as intimidation or harassment that would cause a reasonable student to feel in danger of being physically harmed. Bullying also includes intimidation or harassment that would cause a reasonable student to fear that the bully would harm the student’s property.

The statute’s definition of bullying specifically includes cyberbullying, as well as bullying in the form of:

  • physical actions, including gestures
  • spoken or written words
  • other types electronic communications, and
  • threats of retaliation for reporting bullying.

The statute requires that every policy contain the consequences to be imposed for violations. Also, school districts are prohibited from including within their policies distinctions based on class. In other words, a policy may not impose harsher punishment on a student who cyberbullies an ethnic minority than it would impose on a student who cyberbullies a victim who is not an ethnic minority.

All policies must require school district employees to report any instances of bullying of which they have firsthand knowledge.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 160.775)

State Regulations Related to Bullying

Title 5 of Missouri’s Code of State Regulations contains the state’s rules for operation of its elementary, middle, and high schools. The Missouri School Improvement Plan’s “Resource and Process Standards and Indicators”, found within Title 5, feature several provisions addressing school bullying. Instruction 8 requires that school districts provide a safe and orderly environment for all students and school employees. To carry out Instruction 8, all students and staff must receive instruction on violence prevention, including instruction on preventing as well as responding to bullying. Instruction 8 also requires the collection of data on bullying and that the district use the data to modify programs and strategies in order to support the mission of safe and orderly schools.

Cyberbullying and Missouri Criminal Law

In addition to Missouri statutes and regulations that address cyberbullying and other forms of harassment in schools, the state’s criminal law also prohibits bullying and harassment, regardless of whether the activity occurs online.

Stalking

Missouri law broadly defines the crime of stalking. A person commits stalking by, through a course of conduct, intentionally harassing another person or by following another person with the intent of harassing that person. Although this definition on its face may not appear to include cyberbullying within the meaning of the crime, the stalking statute contains definitions of several of the phrases used within the crime’s definition, revealing the broad scope of the statute.

The law defines a course of conduct as two or more acts over a period of time that show a continuity of purpose. The acts can include any type of communication, and it does not matter how brief the period of time may be during which the conduct occurs.

Harassing refers to a course of conduct directed at a specific person that serves no legitimate purpose. To constitute harassing activity, the course of conduct must be such that a reasonable person would be frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed under the circumstances. Therefore, a cyberbullying incident where one person leaves several messages on a coworker’s online profile, threatening to beat up the coworker next time they cross paths, may constitute stalking. Because it does not matter how short the period over which the threats are made, two threatening messages posted within minutes of each other may result in the person making the threats being charged and convicted of stalking.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.225)

Aggravated Stalking

A person commits the crime of aggravated staking by, through a course of conduct, intentionally harassing or following with the purpose of harassing another person and doing any one of the following acts:

  • making a credible threat (a threat that could conceivably be carried out)
  • violating an order of protection of which the perpetrator has actual notice, or
  • violating a term of the perpetrator’s probation, parole, pretrial release, or release on bond pending appeal of a conviction.

In addition, aggravated stalking may be charged when

  • the victim is 17 years of age or younger and the perpetrator is 21 or older at any point during the course of conduct, or
  • the perpetrator has previously been convicted of domestic assault, violation of a protective order, or any other crime where the person being harassed was the victim.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.225)

Punishment for Stalking and Aggravated Stalking

Stalking is a Class A misdemeanor unless the defendant has a prior conviction for stalking or aggravated stalking, in which case the new conviction for stalking is a Class D felony.

Aggravated stalking is a Class D felony. If the defendant has a prior conviction for stalking or aggravated stalking, a new conviction for aggravated stalking is a Class C felony.

Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

A defendant convicted of a Class C felony faces a maximum prison sentence of seven years while a Class D felony conviction carries a maximum prison sentence of four years. The judge may also impose a maximum fine of $5,000 for either class of felony.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. § § 558.011, 560.011)

Harassment

Under Missouri law, a person commits the crime of harassment if he or she:

  • frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to another person by communicating to that person a threat to commit any felony
  • makes another person reasonably fear receiving physical contact or harm by using coarse language that would offend an average person
  • intentionally frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to another person by making an anonymous telephone call or sending any type of electronic communication
  • intentionally communicates with another person who is or claims to be 17 or younger, and in doing so recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to the other person without good cause, or
  • without good cause, commits any other act for the purpose of frightening, intimidating, or causing emotional distress to another person, and in doing so causes the other person to feel frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed (the victim’s response to the act must be reasonable for a person of that age).

For example, a person who uses social media to frighten another person with violent threats has likely committed harassment.

Punishment for Harassment

Harassment is a Class A misdemeanor unless the defendant is 21 years of age or older and the victim is 17 or younger, or the defendant has a prior conviction for harassment. In either of those scenarios, the new harassment conviction is a Class D felony.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.090)

Consult An Attorney

If you are charged with harassment or stalking based on cyberbullying, you should speak with an attorney. An attorney will evaluate your case and provide essential guidance in navigating criminal charges. Because a conviction can result in a prison sentence, you should waste no time in contacting an attorney to discuss your case.

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