There’s no question that bullying has been around as long as humans and that most of us have been victimized by a bully at least once. Some of us look back at our school years with nostalgia, while others look back with rage at the mistreatment we suffered from bullies.
In the last decade or so, however, bullying seems to have gotten worse. Whether it’s the way technology makes bullying so much easier, faster, and more public, or the focus on bullying LGBT teens, we’re now seeing a lot more kids breaking down from it—which has led some to suicide and others to shooting rampages.
The first anti-bullying law passed in Georgia in 1999 and, since then, 47 other states have followed suit. Recently, the first federal anti-bullying laws were introduced in congress. The question is, do anti-bullying laws actually work, or are they just “feel good” legislation with little substance?
Types of Anti-Bullying Legislation
Because certain types of bullying are so damaging and have led to suicides, some states have enacted laws that specifically address these bullying subsets. While theoretically, a law that covers “bullying” should include everything from giving someone a wedgie to posting a fake Facebook page, holes existed that made it difficult to punish some types. Cyberbullying, defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” is not only a very common way to harass someone these days, but often was not punishable through school bullying policies because it usually occurs off school grounds. Many states are enacting specific laws that address cyberbullying.
Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) students is another specific type that has received a lot of attention, especially after reports of suicides such as that of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who killed himself after his roommate posted a video of him having sex with another male. The current pieces of legislation in congress—the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act—address LGBT bullying by putting specific protection into place for LGBT students the same way that students are protected from discrimination because of race, gender, disability, or religion.
Most people agree that bullying is a terrible thing and that anti-bullying laws are good, yet they are not without controversy. Anti-bullying laws are controversial to two very different groups for very different reasons. The National School Safety and Security Services is in favor of anti-bullying legislation, but questions whether existing anti-bullying laws are actually just to appease voters and, in reality, do little to increase safety in schools. They point out that most anti-bullying legislation lays down requirements for schools to create policies, but offer no financial resources to actually make substantive changes.
The other group that opposes anti-bullying laws is fundamentalist Christians, who oppose what they refer to as “special protections” for LGBT students. According to groups like Focus on the Family, any bill “promoting homosexuality and transgenderism” crosses the line into indoctrination. Other groups have been similarly opposed to such bills for promoting gay tolerance.
New Jersey’s Example
After the death of Tyler Clementi, New Jersey lawmakers passed down the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the country, which called for a centralized system that requires extensive administrative training, an anti-bullying coordinator and specialist at every school, and extensive reports filed twice a year. In addition, every act of bullying must be reported, regardless of how minor, with severe consequences for the school for noncompliance. While the “zero tolerance” approach is well-intentioned, it doesn’t specifically define bullying, so students could be severely punished for unintentional or wrongly-perceived actions such as joking or teasing.
Does It Work?
The big question—whether anti-bullying laws actually work—remains. According to reports in New Jersey, their new law is being used and has helped many kids, but not all parents agree that the numbers (1,127 incidents and 499 confirmed in the first half of the school year in 12 districts) tell the real story. One superintendent has called it a “bureaucratic nightmare.” All conflicts between students—even two kindergarteners fighting over crayons–must be reported as bullying and investigated. Some parents report that their children have continued to be bullied, despite the new law while others have had more success. Though Garden State Equality called the bill a “resounding success,” it’s clear that there are areas of the legislation that could be improved even further with well- considered amendments.