Each fall these days, as students return to school, the issuing of bullying makes the news again.
Usually, it's related to the tragic suicide of a teenager who was picked on by his peers.
This fall, the death wasn't too far from home.
Jamey Rodemeyer, a freshman at Williamsville North High School took his own life after years of being victimized by bullies.
The case has drawn the attention of Erie County law enforcment, which is a reminder that bullying isn't just cruel. It's a crime.
Yesterday morning, I spoke with Det. Rich Schauf of Batavia PD and this morning I spoke with Christopher Dailey, principal at Batavia HS, about how bullying is handled within the city. Much of the information they have to share should be applicable throughout Genesee County.
The primary laws that could be used to prosecute a bully are harassment, a violation, and aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.
Harassment usually involves pushing and shoving or similar violent acts that do not cause serious physical injury but are intended to annoy or alarm the victim.
Aggravated harassment is phone calls, text messages and messages left in online venues that are intended to alarm and annoy the victim.
If the bully is, say, 17, and the victim is, for example, 14, a charge of endangering the welfare of a child is also possible.
The age of the bully is also a factor in what police can do with the case and how the judicial system will deal with it.
If the bully is 14 or 15, or younger, there won't be criminal charges filed. Instead intervention and counseling is used to try and change behavior.
If the bully is 16 or older, then it can become a criminal matter.
These days, bullies use electronic devices to victimize their targets -- phone calls, texting, Facebook messages and other websites are used to leave harassing notes.
In the case of Rodemeyer, the most recent abuse meted out toward him was on a blog he set up at Formspring. Among the messages left for him were:
* "Kill your self!!!! You have nothing left!"
* "Listen to us, you're a bad person, you don't belong here, jump off a bridge or something!"
* "Go kill yourself, you're worthless, ugly and don't have a point to live."
When people leave messages like that, Schauf said, even when they're determined to be criminal in nature, proving who left the message can be difficult.
"The bully might say, 'I lost my phone,' and you ask, 'Did you report it missing or stolen?' and they'll say, 'Well, a friend had it,'" Schauff said. "It's really hard sometimes to put that person in the position of having sent the messages. That's an uphill climb in these investigations."
Investigators must prove the bully was physically in control of the computer or phone used to send the messages at the time the messages were sent.
That isn't always easy, Schauf said.
However, just the intervention of law enforcement can sometimes change a bully's behavior, Schauf said, a point Dailey reiterated.
"Usually we get both parents involved (before contacting police) and that puts an end to it," Dailey said. "We get everybody together and hash it out. Usually a visit from police ends it pretty quick if our intervention doesn't work out."
Dailey said the vast majority of the time, when school officials confront a bully about hurtful and harassing cyber messages, the bully fesses up immediately.
School officials take bullying very seriously, Dailey said.
"When something like this comes up (the death of Rodemeyer), it's something all the staff talks about," Dailey said. "It's a reminder to pay attention to this. We don't want it to happen here. We don't want to be the next headline."
Four years ago, the school started a mentoring program for freshmen which includes an orientation day before classes start and mentoring for the freshmen by upperclassmen.
Since the program started, Dailey said, bullying in the school has dropped 22 percent.
"I'd be lying if I said it was gone totally, but it has gone down significantly," Dailey said.
In October, teachers and staff will receive additional training on dealing with bullying.
It's important to take seriously, Dailey said, because unlike with previous generations when somebody might get bullied at school, but then go home and be away from it, in a safe environment, now the bullying follows the victim across the internet and through mobile phones and text messages.
"If I were bullied as a kid, I could escape it," Dailey said. "Now, for these kids who get caught up in that web they cannot escape it, which is why we have to be more vigilant. The old 'boys will be boys' attitude doesn't fly any more."
Schauf said anybody can report bullying to the police, even just a witness -- such as somebody who sees harassing messages online. But in order to press charges, the victim must be willing to cooperate. If there isn't a cooperating victim, police won't be able to complete an investigation and file charges.
That can sometimes be hard to get, Schauf said, because some victims just want the problem to go away and be left alone.
(Schauff encouraged witnesses to call the BPD's confidential tip line, which will go straight to investigators, rather than emergency dispatch when reporting possible bullying. The number is 343-6370.)
The difficulties in prosecuting bullies, Schauf said, are why a good relationship between the police and the school is so important.
Investigators trust that school officials will bring serious cases to them and handle appropriately those cases they can handle internally.
"Schools have a bit more leeway to take action on the punishment aspect," Schauf said. "We work really well together to mete out the best consequences we can get, working between the two styles."
Further reading: Tips on avoiding cyber bullies.