HELENA — A middle school classmate promised to make Jill Sharp's life a living hell after the talented athlete won a coveted spot on a dance team in Sidney.
Sharp thought it was an empty threat, made out of jealousy. But then the girl attacked Sharp's dancing ability and tarnished her reputation using social media sites such as MSN Messenger, Myspace, Facebook and Twitter.
Sharp, now 20, told her story this year before the Montana House Judiciary Committee as it was considering an anti-bullying bill. She described how the taunting messages continued to appear through middle school and high school.
"But I was always taught that I would be the bigger person," Sharp said in a recent interview. "I just hoped this person would grow out of it."
She finally went to her high school principal with a thick file documenting the posts and messages. The principal recommended she take legal action, but that proved to be a dead end.
"Montana doesn't have any legislation against bullying in general, and no law saying that you have to be a good person," said Sharp, who recalled that police told her that her adversary could say whatever she wanted to online.
Montana is the only state in the nation without laws against bullying and cyberbullying, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But even with the nationwide push against bullying in recent years, it's not clear whether such laws actually work.
There is anecdotal evidence that anti-bullying legislation can be a deterrent, but the laws are too new to determine whether they have reduced bullying, said Ingrid Denato, director of anti-bullying programs at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In Montana, 23 percent of high school students and 38 percent of middle school students reported being bullied at school, according to a survey released in 2011 by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Eighteen percent of both groups had been bullied online. A new survey will be released this summer.
Educators and policymakers take the issue seriously. Denato said both bullies and the bullied can have higher incidences of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. That's of special concern in Montana, where suicide rates rank high for both adults and youth. According to the American Association of Suicidology, Montana is fifth-highest nationally for suicide among those 15 to 24. Considering all age groups, Montana is No. 3.
"When I was a kid bullying was writing 'slut' or 'b----' on the bathroom wall," said state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. "Now you write it on Facebook or a blog or the Internet, and it follows you your whole life."
Hill tried to pass the state's first anti-bullying measures in the recently ended legislative session. Both House Bill 527, which would have made cyberbullying its own offense, and House Bill 528, which would have made threatening or harassing electronic messages a stalking offense, failed to reach a floor vote.
Rep. Jerry Bennett voted against both measures in the House Judiciary Committee. The Libby Republican said he was bullied in high school because of his short stature, but he coped. Parents should use common sense and unplug their children's mobile devices to help them avoid ridicule, he said.
"Each school should be able to define what their needs are," Bennett said. "I think bullying is an issue that can easily be controlled at the local level without state intervention."
Lacking legislation, the Board of Public Instruction has added anti-bullying guidelines that each school must follow to remain accredited. For example, school districts are required to develop their own methods for documenting bullying, protecting the victim and disciplining the bully.
"I think that younger generations have a better understanding of cyberbullying issues because we are living in it," said Sharp, now a senior at the University of Montana.