The question isn’t so much whether bullying is illegal – 45 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation – but rather, how enforceable these laws are, whether or not they are effective, and how far they should go.
Anti-bullying laws didn’t save Tyler Clementi, in New Jersey, or Phoebe Price, in Massachusetts, both of whom committed suicide after enduring ongoing harassment from their peers. And any high schooler will likely tell you that no matter how many rules and laws are in place, whatever the stated consequences, bullying happens, and it happens a lot.
How does the law define bullying?
Bullying, broadly defined, is an intentional act intended to cause another person harm. Physical harm is obviously a huge factor in bullying, and sadly one of the easier to define and legislate; however, bullying often takes more subtle forms that makes determining blame or prosecuting a perpetrator more difficult. The legal definition has expanded to include verbal as well as physical harassment, and more recently written and electronic communication. As our society changes bullying changes as well; slurs once written on bathroom walls now can be posted on Facebook instead for an exponentially wider audience.
Anti-bullying legislation typically include provisions against physical acts as well as written, verbal, or electronic threats or intimidation. Massachusetts, in a typical example, defines school bullying as:
repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (i) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property; (ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.
Which states have anti-bullying laws?
The vast majority of states in the U.S. now have anti-bullying laws; only Michigan, Montana, Hawaii, and South Dakota currently do not have official state legislation, although Michigan has a statewide anti-bullying education policy and pending legislation. The provisions of the laws vary by state but most require public school districts to implement codes of conduct against physical, verbal, and written harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Some include cyberbullying in the general law; some have separate laws specifically targeting the use of electronic communication to harass and intimidate.
Do the laws work?
Bullying is an ever-more-serious issue with no easy answers, but even so some experts question the effectiveness of such legislation. They point out that most school districts already have anti-bullying rules and anti-discrimination policies. There is also the cost-prohibitive factor of requiring schools to implement policies and programs without providing the money to support and enforce them.
The National Center for Education Statistics releases a yearly study on school crime and safety; one measure that points to a decrease in bullying is that between 1995 and 2007 (the last year for which data is available), the percentage of students ages 12-18 who feared attack or harm at school decreased from 12 to 5 percent. However, the percentage of students who reported being bullied in 2007 was nearly 32 percent, with 10 percent reporting bullying once or twice a week and six percent “almost every day.” That’s up from 28 percent in 2005 and eight percent in 2000.
Because these statistics don’t measure the effectiveness of education programs versus legislative enforcement, it’s nearly impossible to tell what caused the huge jump in the first five years of this decade and the increasing rise in perceived bullying since then. On some level, it seems students feel safer from actual physical harm at school, which could be attributed to the rise in awareness of school violence, increased security, and things like weapons checks. In general, however, students do not feel safer from teasing, rumors, cyber bulling, and other forms that fall under the heading of emotional rather than physical harm, which was reported nearly twice as often.
The bottom line
These laws, and anti-bullying education and training in general are too recent to judge their true effectiveness. Sure, states can make laws requiring awareness programs in the schools, teacher training, and even prosecution of bullies in certain cases. Phoebe Price’s tormentors were charged with counts ranging from criminal harassment, stalking, civil rights violations, and statutory rape, which defense attorneys and some community members criticized as too harsh.
In Phoebe’s case, her harassers were able to plea bargain, receive sentences involving probation and community service, and for the most part walk away. The district attorney claims the teens who were charged have “paid the price in the media and public arena.” Legal? Yes. Fair? Who knows.