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“You can’t bully me…it’s against the law!”

May 4, 2010

Just imagine these words being shouted just as a child is about to be pushed against a locker at school.  Or typed onto a computer screen on a popular social media site.  Or perhaps yelled back in a school hallway as the victim is taunted and teased by his or her tormenters.

What effect do you think it’s going to have — not just to say it, but to have these laws in effect? Hmm…I suspect not very much. Best case, the victim will get laughed at or teased even worse. Worst case, he or she will still get harassed, beaten…or more.

This week Massachusetts passed their anti-bullying law in the wake of Phoebe Prince’s bullying suicide.  It was an important move, I agree.  There are now 42 states across the country that have some form of anti-bullying law on the books.

But, I just completed a radio interview for an Ohio station in which I was asked about the impact of these laws on the bullying problem and whether there could be such as a “perfect law” that could stop the bullying epidemic. I’m afraid not.  Laws only work on the lawful and you don’t see these kids that are committing the crime of bullying spending too many cycles worrying about consequences for their actions.  Heck, add to that the problem that these perpetrators are, generally kids (we’re not going to get into the topic of adult or workplace bullying here; I want to stay focused).  How many kids do you know are reading LAWS?

If laws were the solution to crimes, we’d have no crimes at all, because you can guarantee we have plenty of laws. Assault, for example, has been a crime forever — did that stop Wayne Treacy from riding across town for three miles to beat the stuffing out of Josie Lou Ratley?

And again, I’m amazed that we spend so many cycles, resource and, frankly, money on drafting and passing legisation after-the-fact, but what are we really doing to prevent the problem in the first place. Take Ohio’s law, for example. Here’s an excerpt that describes the law as passed:

The law requires all school districts to establish a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation, or bullying.  The policy must be developed in consultation with parents, students, school employees, and community members.  The policy must include the following:

  • a statement prohibiting bullying of any student on school property or at school-sponsored events.
  • a definition of bullying that includes the definition listed above (in other words, schools cannot decide to define bullying to only include physically hurting another student – they must include physical and mental harm).
  • a procedure for reporting bullying.
  • a requirement that school employees and volunteers must report bullying to the school principal.
  • a requirement that parents or guardians of students who are involved in any bullying be notified and have access to any written reports about bullying incidents.
  • a procedure for documenting, or keeping track, of any reported bullying.
  • a procedure for responding to and investigating any reported bullying.
  • a strategy for protecting a victim from additional bullying AND from retaliation for reporting bullying.
  • a disciplinary procedure for a student guilty of bullying another student.

The law requires school districts to publish their bullying policy in the student handbook every year and to include the policy in school employee training materials.

This language is all about policies and publishing policies and defining…where are we talking about putting programs in place to prevent bullying?  I don’t see it. It’s great that we have the rules — bullying is bad and here’s what it looks like and what’ll happen when you do it — but what about making sure everyone has the capability to know and follow the rules?  You think that’s obvious, but it’s not. There are too many kids out there who aren’t intrinsically bad kids…they just don’t “get it.”

Maryland, where the 8-year old was reported this week to have tried to kill herself due to bullying at school where more than a dozen suspensions have been passed out this school year due to bullying, has had a law on the books since 2005. It was even “upgraded” in 2008 and is now “graded” as an A++ bill — in theory they’re doing everything right. The perfect bill isn’t working in Baltimore City Public Schools, it seems.

No, I’m not saying don’t have the laws…it’s important to have consequences for negative actions.  But don’t see it as a fix, because it won’t be that. If you want to solve the problem, you have to go to the root cause, and so far I don’t see many people doing that at all.

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