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Modern Parenthood

Anti-bullying laws: A mom dares to critique the social trend

Anti-bullying laws have proliferated in the past decade: But some people are troubled at what lawmakers and advocates almost always portray as a positive movement against bullying that may or may not have the desired effect.

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“To go from zero to every state in that amount of time is unusual,” Ms. Silbaugh says.

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is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..

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While the scope and nature of these laws vary, supporters say they almost always force schools to take bullying seriously, usually requiring some sort of anti-bullying policy and bullying investigation procedures. Too often in the past, anti-bullying advocates say, schools simply ignored this sort of student-to-student harassment and violence, or claimed there was nothing they could do about it. Moreover, by adopting anti-bullying policies, which often include some sort of anti-bullying curricula, many schools end up going through a bullying self-audit. This is important, advocates say, because it forces administrators to recognize just how big a problem bullying is in their communities.

But critics say there are some big question marks here. There’s no evidence that anti-bullying laws actually work. They just haven’t been around long enough for researchers to collect that data.

Moreover, the laws can muddy the conversation about bullying. While at least 41 states provide definitions of “bullying” within their statutes, these definitions differ from one another. They also almost always differ from what those who study bullying call the “research-based” definitions of bullying, which include some key components: a repeated pattern of behavior, an intent to harm and a power differential.  These characteristics are important, scholars say, to distinguish “bullying” from drama, teenage bad behavior, and other sorts of conflict.

Or, some say, to differentiate “bullying” from voiced opinions that school administrators just don’t like.

New Jersey, for instance, which is lauded as having one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country, has come under fire from free speech advocates for its anti-bullying policies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says that the state’s laws, which prohibit speech that “has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students” in such a way to substantially disrupt or interfere with the “orderly operation of the institution,” cause administrators to over-react to criticism, or even humor, that might include a perceived insult.  

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This is definitely not the research-based version of bullying that scholars have connected to all those serious health and psychological troubles, it points out.

Regardless of these debates, though, anti-bullying laws have “given salience to the issue and caused [schools] to focus on it when they have a thousand things to focus on,” Silbaugh says. “Can you say whether the law reduces bullying? You can’t say, it’s too short a time. Are schools talking about bullying more than they were five years ago? They are.”

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