In wake of suicides, anti-bullying bill passed

By Edward Stern J.D.
June 1st, 2010

Bullying. The word itself conjures up images of uneven relationships and unfair advantages. The differentiation or inequality is primarily in size, power and strength. “Merriam-Webster” online defines “to bully” as “to treat abusively” and “to affect by means of force or coercion.” Based on this definition, you would think everyone would be against bullying.

Two recent incidents have been in the news involving young people committing suicide. These suicides are thought to have been the result of bullying by schoolmates.

Bullying in society appears to be on the rise. This belief and other theories regarding the causes of bullying are driving a movement for state legislatures to pass laws to deal with the problem. Pressure is building for action. Legislatures are racing to be on the right side of the issue with legislators wanting to show that they are powerful and will defend the defenseless.

But the bigger question is: why did we need to wait for legislation in order to stand up for those who are less powerful? Most people are aware of the old adage: “The one thing we know about the weak is that they pick on the weaker.” Where were parents and schools before these incidents of suicide occurred? When Columbine and similar incidents took place, the perpetrators of those attacks allegedly had been ostracized and felt bullied by others. Their actions, at least in part, were reportedly based on revenge for previous conduct done to them. The point is that bullying is more complicated than we know.

Some conflict between individuals and groups will happen, no matter what legislation is enacted. With the availability of the Internet, bullying that took place in the schoolyard and on the streets that could have been witnessed by adults, may be hidden and sent anonymously on the Web as cyber-bullying.

Even if untraceable to its source, cyber-bullying allows for a memorialization of what occurred that can be reproduced.

Legislation needs to deal with the roles of the perpetrator, the victim, bystanders and authority figures. Threatening punishment against perpetrators alone will probably drive bullying further underground, with the possible addition of threats to the victim regarding what will happen “if he/she tells,” with threats of bodily harm or other dire consequences.

Schools and families are probably the most important factors here. If parents do not see the issue of bullying as a problem, then their children probably will not see it as a problem. Some parents who were bullies or were bullied sometimes believe that bullying is part of growing up and that it didn’t hurt them.

This aspect of the issue is exceedingly difficult to control. Any legislation should include a longitudinal study to determine the harm and cost of bullying.

This leads to the big question. What are the goals? In a society that honors the competitiveness of the capitalist system in economics and the adversary system in law and provides television and movies about “mean girls,” and has been at war for almost a decade, it becomes increasingly difficult to agree on the line between “life-skills” and unacceptable conduct unless the harm or meanness and actual intention to do harm seems clear. We might also look at the actions of groups as well as the actions of individuals.

The good side of legislation is its educational factor for all of society. As with all education, teaching children and adults about the acceptable conduct and definitions of maturity will require a great deal of reinforcement and not everyone will be listening and wanting to learn these skill sets if these skills are not understood in context.

Each state will take a look at this issue separately and may reach different conclusions.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers recently approved an anti-bullying law, spurred on by the recent suicides of two students who had been tormented by their classmates. The bill prohibits bullying at schools and clamps down on so-called cyber-bullying by prohibiting the use of emails, text messages, Internet postings and other electronic means to create a hostile school environment.

The law requires school staff to report incidents to principals, who in turn must take disciplinary action or report bullies to police if he or she believes criminal charges could be pursued. In addition, administrators are required to publish an anti-bullying policy and create an anti-bullying curriculum for students. Staff must complete training on how to identify bullying.

Supporters of the legislation felt that the spike in cyber-bullying on networking sites like Facebook and Twitter has escalated the long-standing problem and allows bullies to torment their victims after the school day is over and incite others to join in.

The legislation includes stepped-up protections for children with special needs by helping them better handle and respond to incidents of bullying.

Someone should monitor the use of any anti-bullying law to ensure it is not being used to otherwise exclude children because they are “failing” in the school setting.

Accompanying an article in The Cape Cod Times was a chart from the University of New Hampshire, Crimes Against Children Research, showing that “authors of a national survey on childhood violence believe that anti-bullying programs had a positive impact.” This statement was not accompanied by a copy of the content or curriculum of such anti-bullying programs.

Assuming a definition of maturity that includes taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, being able to see the world through other people’s eyes and needs, whether described as empathy or acceptance of the “social contract,” how can we legislate the implementation of conduct? Will this legislation work better than other types of legislation we have used previously to try to control other conduct?

Edward M. Stern, J.D., has a private law practice in Newtonville, Mass. Stern serves as assistant dean for pre-law advising at Boston University and is a visiting lecturer for the University of Massachusetts/Boston Department of Sociology.

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