Grace's Law aims to stop cyber bullying

Matthew Burdette was the kind of kid that gave hugs freely and had a tender heart.

"He was a good kid. Even last summer, he had planned to be a counselor at boy scouts this coming summer and it blindsided us what happened to Matthew," said Laura Mechak.

Laura Mechak is Matthew's aunt, his east coast aunt – living in Maryland while he was out in San Diego.

Matthew was a high school freshman and adjusting well Mechak says, until the day after Thanksgiving when her brother called.

Matthew took his own life.

"I fell on the floor, just devastated. Never saw it coming," she said.

In many ways, neither did the teenager.

Matthew's friends would later tell his parents a classmate recorded Matthew while he was in the bathroom at school and then posted it on Snapchat, Vine and other social media, a type of bullying rising to a whole new digital and pervasive level.


"It's not a punch on the playground anymore,” Mechak said, “It went viral. It went beyond his school, it went to other schools in California and kids in the neighborhood who didn’t go to Matthew's school saw this video that was taken of him."

And it went on mercilessly for two weeks.

Matthew's parents believe that is what caused their son to take his own life. The teen left a note.

"He opened the letter saying that he loved his parents, he had a wonderful life, but he said I can't do school anymore. I have no friends. He said I don't want to kill myself but I can't do school anymore."

Mechak could only remember that much of the letter, she has only read it once and can't bear to do it again.

“I can't,” she said. “It just's Matthew talking to me and I can't. I can't do that."

The pain of the loss is still so fresh, so powerful.

Matthew's family is now threatening legal action toward the school district for answers on what was known, when they knew it and if the boy who took the video was ever disciplined.

So far, no answers -- a reality the Burdettes don't want other families to go through.

“There has to be a safe mechanism for people to tattle or people to go to someone that they trust to say,’ hey listen, someone is picking on me and I just don't know how to do it,’” Mechak said, “Something has to happen and not just in the San Diego, California school district, it is a nationwide problem."               

It most certainly is and here the Maryland State Department of Education has been tracking bullying with specific reporting forms for the last few years.

"After the form is submitted, you have 48 hours to start the investigation. Then, you have 10 days to complete the investigation and give some kind of feedback to the family."

Michael Ford is a school safety specialist with the state and is in charge of compiling the reports over all of Maryland's school districts.

Through the 2012-2013 school year, Maryland saw 5,255 instances of bullying, which is up from the previous two school years.

Ford says the increase is because there are more mechanisms to report bullying, especially cyber bullying.

Here in Maryland, the general assembly passed what was called landmark legislation last year.

Grace's Law, which took effect last October, was named after a Howard County teen who took her own life after being cyber bullied on social media in 2012.

That is now a $500 fine or up to a year in prison -- a law that erases the boundary of school property and makes what happened to both Matthew and Grace a crime.

"So what you have is the bullying that happens at home or in the neighborhood or online video game systems, Twitter, Instagram, that carries over to the school day. So now, there is a mechanism for dealing with it in the school and if need be, the local police department gets involved," Ford said.

Ford believes while no one has been prosecuted under the new law, he hopes it remains a strong deterrent -- the same kind of deterrent Matthew Burdette's family is hoping their son's death can spark in California.

"They don't get it. They don't get how big the cyber world is and how much damage it really can do,” Mechak said.

Maryland is one of the first states to pass something like Grace's law.    

The Maryland State Department of Education hopes the new law will help to stem the tide of bullying here in our state.

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