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.

Anti-bullying laws have proliferated as the social trend against bullying has become a cause célèbre. TActress-singer Demi Lovato held hands with students at The Young Women’s Leadership School in New York during a surprise visit to the school for an anti-bullying assembly, Sept. 20, 2012.

With the start of the school year upon us, we have been extra interested in that hot national topic of bullying. After all, parents have heard a lot about bullying this year. Already. There have been speeches by school administrators, informational pamphlets and pledges, peer-to-peer presentations. We know the fight against bullying is a cause célèbre, but what gives with the extra attention this year?

We asked a number of experts about this. It turns out that while the topic is complex, one of the big reasons is that, increasingly, schools are required to adopt anti-bullying policies. By law.

It’s hard to know, of course, which came first: law or social trend.  Chances are they have reinforced one another.  But for now, we’ll take a look at how anti-bullying legal landscape has changed – rapidly and dramatically – over the past decade or so, and why some people are troubled at what lawmakers and advocates almost always portray as a positive movement against bullying.

Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying legislation in place; Montana is the only state without an anti-bullying statute. This is a huge increase from just a few years ago, and 15 years ago there weren’t any anti-bullying laws at all.

Katharine Silbaugh, a law professor at the Boston University School of Law and an expert on bullying legislation, explains that the first laws against bullying passed soon after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, as lawmakers scrambled to respond to what suddenly seemed to be a shockingly dangerous phenomenon in schools.

(To recap some of what we’ve written before about Columbine:  Almost immediately after the shooting, in which two seniors killed 12 other students and one teacher, media reports focused on the idea that the perpetrators were social outcasts who were taking revenge for being bullied. That narrative, however, has been challenged: in his book, “Columbine,” for instance, author David Cullen unravelled the bullied-versus-bully story line, which he found to be almost entirely a media creation.)

The laws spread rapidly across the country. Between 1999 and 2010, according to the US Department of Education, 120 bills were enacted by state legislatures either introducing or amending laws to address bullying and related behaviors in schools.  

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

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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