Bullying: is it an unavoidable part of growing up, or criminal activity? That's a question that will be before legislators this year at the Vermont Statehouse.
"If you tell somebody you should kill yourself and that person ended up killing themselves, then in my view you've committed a crime," said Rep. Michel Consejo, D-Sheldon.
Consejo wants to create two new charges this year: misdemeanor bullying and felony aggravated bullying. The Sheldon Democrat says he only expects a few cases a year would need to be handled in court rather than in school.
"My objective is not to put people in jail; my objective is to stop people from killing themselves," Consejo said. "It will be a very specific crime done very specific ways with very specific repercussions."
A schoolyard or workplace bully could face up to 60 days behind bars for the misdemeanor charge and 180 for a second. Prosecutors would need to show the victim felt reasonable fear of bodily injury or violent crime and suffered emotional distress. The felony charge carries a 5-year max, but can only be sought for those with prior convictions.
"In reading it, a lot of what the bill looks to criminalize is already covered," Franklin County Prosecutor Jim Hughes said.
Hughes says disorderly conduct, stalking and assault laws can cover activities typically considered to be bullying. But he says defining the word could be beneficial, provide more attention and give prosecutors yet another tool. If it does pass, he wouldn't expect to see anyone go away for five years.
"It's very rare that a judge will impose the maximum sentence in any case on a standalone case," Hughes said.
Hughes says he does see a case of adult bullying land in front of him from time to time. He notes some people never grow up.
The bill has 11 sponsors, but Consejo says he hasn't heard a lot of enthusiasm for the measure from leadership. However, he says it's enough to start the conversation.