Bullying: A Flawed Solution to a Misunderstood Problem

In 2010, Rutgers University Student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate filmed him kissing another man. The same year, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after being bullied by a group of high school classmates. These highly publicized tragedies are part of a nationwide panic surrounding the supposed “bullying epidemic,” and the resultant crusade to legislate it out of existence.

Both state and local governments have implemented measures that attempt to combat bullying. After Tyler Clementi’s death, the New Jersey State legislature passed the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” considered the toughest anti-bullying legislation in the nation, requiring schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying programs, increase staff training, and comply with strict deadlines for reporting bullying.

California state law also includes a number of recently passed anti-bullying, harassment, and discrimination measures. The School Safety Violence Prevention Strategy Program awards grants to local educational agencies serving any combination of students from kindergarten to seventh grade that best meet school safety criteria, including discrimination, harassment, and school-related crime-assessment policies. The California Safe Place to Learn Act, enacted in 2007, outlines the State’s responsibilities to keep schools safe and combat bias and harassment in schools by requiring that the California Department of Education annually assess whether LEAs have complied with existing anti-discrimination and harassment laws. Compliance entails both a policy that prohibits discrimination based on a student’s actual or perceived characteristics (or discrimination based on association with a person or persons who posses any of these actual or perceived characteristics) and a method of receiving and responding to complaints of this type of discrimination.

Assembly Bill 9, passed in 2011, expands the reach of the Safe Place to Learn Act to apply to intimidation and bullying in addition to discrimination. The Bill includes an enumeration of the minimum standards of the complaint-response process, which is as follows: (1) immediate intervention if school personnel witness acts of discrimination, intimidation, bullying, or harassment, when safe to do so; (2) a timeline to investigate and resolve complaints; (3) an appeal process for the complainant; and (4) complaint forms that are translated, as appropriate.

President Obama endorses the anti-bullying efforts and considers bullying a significant problem in the United States, stating in a recorded message that “for a long time bullying was treated as an unavoidable part of growing up, but more and more we are seeing how harmful it can be for our kids…Putting a stop to bullying is a responsibility we all share.”

But is bullying truly ravaging America’s schools to an extent that necessitates such widespread government intervention? While it is a reprehensible practice that deserves the attention of a nation, the numbers suggest that bullying as a whole is actually declining in the U.S. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who were “afraid of attack or harm at school” declined from 12 to 4 percent, while the victimization rate decreased fivefold. NCES also reported that the number of students being bullied has remained fairly constant over the years: 28 percent of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; the percentage rose to 32 percent in 2007, but dropped back down to 28 by 2009 and remained constant through 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available). This data is hardly suggestive of an epidemic.

Even if bullying were running rampant, legislation remains a problematic solution to the problem. To start, much of the anti-bullying legislation-though well intentioned-contains broad definitions of bullying that result in curtailed First Amendment rights and undeservedly draconian punishments. For example, a Maryland elementary school student was suspended for nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a pistol and waving it around, while two Florida middle-schoolers received day-long suspensions for daring to publicly hug on school grounds. Free speech has come under siege as well. In a Wisconsin High School, for example, the school paper published side by side student opinion articles, one advocating for adoption by same-sex couples and one opposing same-sex parenting on religious grounds. While the opposing view is widely considered an offensive and bigoted position, the article was a legitimate expression of the author’s right to free speech. The school labeled the article as “bullying”, however, issuing a public apology and assuring that they would take measures to prevent future potentially offensive opinions from being proliferated in their school paper. It seems, then, that claims of bullying have become vehicles for censorship and the limitation of rights.

In addition, anti-bullying legislation is poorly enforced and ineffective. In California, a recently released report by the state auditor revealed that state and local educational agencies throughout the state blatantly neglect to enforce and evaluate anti-bullying and other protective programs. After investigating the LEAs compliance with anti-bullying and harassment legislation, the auditors found that while most local educational agencies have implemented policies that comply with state law, they do little to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. In fact, 55 percent of schools reported that they do not formally evaluate the effectiveness of their anti-bullying programs.

This type of neglect prevails on the state level as well. The California Department of Education did not collect data from 2008-09 to 2010-11 through its federal monitoring program to confirm that school districts had set up procedures to both prevent and report bullying. The department’s data collection system was not updated to collect bullying information until 2012, a full four years after the Safe Place to Learn Act required department oversight of district anti-bullying programs. Additionally, the auditors found that the department failed to meet the 60-day legal requirement to resolve appeals in 11 out of the 18 appeals they reviewed.

The auditors also found that most of the complaint-resolution processes –the proactive arms of anti-bullying policies- are riddled with weaknesses that render them effectively impotent. Each LEA encourages that complainants address their grievances in an early and informal manner at the school site level or through the use of an alternative complaint process. In this way most complaints bypass the existing formal complaint resolution processes and instead fall under the jurisdiction of potentially biased school staff. In fact, the auditors found that one local educational agency in particular failed to ensure the complainant’s right to an unbiased decision by regularly allowing site administrators named as parties to the complaint to conduct the investigations of the very same complaints.

Bullying does exist in schools in the United States, and administrators, teachers, parents, students, and private organizations should actively pursue its elimination. However, the nation needs to stop devoting its money, time, and personnel to programs and legislation that combat an imagined epidemic, especially when these measures are ineffective and lead to violations of rights.