June 25, 2024
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Lisa-Michelle Kucharz fights back against cyberbullying

1990 graduate works with New York state lawmakers to create task force that addresses the issue

The advocacy efforts of Long Island resident Lisa-Michelle Kucharz '90 have enabled New York state to create a task force of experts in various fields to address cyberbullying. The advocacy efforts of Long Island resident Lisa-Michelle Kucharz '90 have enabled New York state to create a task force of experts in various fields to address cyberbullying.
The advocacy efforts of Long Island resident Lisa-Michelle Kucharz '90 have enabled New York state to create a task force of experts in various fields to address cyberbullying. Image Credit: Photo provided.

Lisa-Michelle Kucharz ’90 knew what happened to her was awful.

For several years, a stranger flooded her inbox and Facebook Messenger with cruel messages. She was subject to defamatory blog posts accusing her of criminal activity, threats of violence, antisemitism, humiliation and multiple impersonation accounts on social media.

But instead of retreating from public life and trying to shield herself from the world, Kucharz spoke out and turned a traumatic experience into helping others — especially children — who are at risk for becoming targets of cyberbullying.

“I was in my 40s having such a difficult time during my ordeal. I couldn’t fathom how youth who experience cyberbullying could handle it,” she says. That led her to learn more about the problem — and act.

“I just knew I had to do something, though I wasn’t sure what,” she says.

In October 2021, due in large part to Kucharz’s advocacy and work, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed S.623/A.2206, which creates a task force made up of experts in the fields of child psychology, technology, law enforcement, mental health, social services or other appropriate fields to explore and address the impact of cyberbullying.

“There’s nothing more important than keeping our communities safe, and as technology advances, it is crucial that New York has strong laws to protect New Yorkers from online harassment,” Hochul said in a statement at the time. “I am proud to sign these bills into law so that New Yorkers can rest assured that they can spend time online in a safer, healthier environment.”

Kucharz’s ordeal started in in 2014; her perpetrator was convicted of criminal harassment in 2017 and sentenced to a six-month jail sentence.

Kucharz didn’t wait for the final decision to figure out how she could use this experience to help others. She began studying cyberbullying research, laws and prevention best practices, focusing on preparing practical suggestions for schools, communities, states and the nation.

Then, after her case went public, Kucharz heard from both adults and children who had also been targets of online abuse. According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of teens in the U.S. have experienced cyberbullying.

“I started to piece together this puzzle. Something had to be done,” she says.

Kucharz met then-state Sen. Todd Kaminsky in 2016 when he knocked on her door while campaigning. She asked him about his thoughts on cyberbullying prevention, and he invited her to reach out to him when she was ready to share her experience and offer her suggestions. After her perpetrator pleaded guilty, she worked with Kaminsky, his team and other New York officials.

It’s not a stretch that Kucharz sprang into action. In her professional life she teaches communications, new media and media law at Long Island University, and has held leadership positions in marketing, communications, public relations, human resource management and development. She’s also a certified coach and happiness trainer, and mentors students and new professionals.

Kucharz formed the base for her advocacy while at Binghamton University, where she studied political science. It’s an education that taught her how government works, she says. While a student, she also volunteered with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that helps students get involved in public policy discussions. In one project, she worked for the group’s Small Claims Court Action Center, which offers free help on consumer problems and complaints. In another, students went to supermarkets to make sure prices were correctly marked so elderly patrons wouldn’t be scammed.

“I learned to look out for those who need help and did something about it,” she says.

In the same way, her experience advocating for more to be done about cyberbullying “is a great example of citizens getting involved in the legislation process, from recognizing a need to sharing suggestions for new laws or changes in the law, from connecting with key stakeholders to continuously advocating for positive change to making things happen,” she says. Throughout, she learned that laws often happen because “citizens reach out with concerns and share their experiences and ultimately make a difference.”

The task force formed by S.623/A.2206 will explore and address the impacts of cyberbullying. That includes identifying the most common victims, mediums, and social and psychological effects; measuring the prevalence of cyberbullying; making recommendations on how to prevent it; identifying ways in which the state can better assist victims of cyberbullying; and identifying measures other states have taken to address it.

The formation of the task force is just the start in New York state’s efforts to address cyberbullying — but Kucharz isn’t waiting around to keep her advocacy going. She’s held cyberbullying-prevention sessions virtually and in person with teens, college students, parents, families, educators, school administrators, psychologists, social workers and others. She’s also continuing to work with community leaders to raise awareness about the pervasiveness and seriousness of cyberbullying and the best practices to combat it, while promoting digital wellness, having a positive online presence, and communicating with kindness, empathy and respect.

“Students who have been cyberbullied and their parents often told me they felt they weren’t taken seriously when trying to stop it,” Kucharz says. She helps them learn how to document evidence, organize what they want to say and identify who best to say it to, which often isn’t law enforcement but could be a school official, teacher, sports coach or youth program leader.

“That way, when they address it, they’re focused and know what they need to share in order for the behavior to change. That’s the ultimate goal,” she says.

Attitudes about cyberbullying and online abuse have somewhat changed since she received her first harassing message, Kucharz adds. People then were often told that targets should just get off social media or ignore the abuse, she says.

“It seemed like many people had no understanding of what I was going through, what other people go through and how even people who are not active on social media can be a target of online abuse,” she says. “By spreading awareness about its devastating impact and best practices to prevent it, we can all play a role in diminishing it. Sometimes I feel like it’s been baby steps, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

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