Blog: The Educated Reporter

Criminalizing School Bullying: Do New Laws Go Too Far?

When it comes to school bullies, are they misunderstood kids who just need to pointed on a better path? Or are they criminals who will only be curbed by the full weight of the law?


Earlier this week, USA Today’s Greg Toppo looked at the sharp increase in states enacting anti-bullying initiative despite questions as to their effectiveness. And for anyone wondering if bullying takes a summer vacation, Toppo notes that students “might leave behind the face-to-face bullying that includes everything from simple taunts to brutal beatings, but too often they can’t escape the digital world that gives the predators access to their prey day and night and well beyond the schoolyard gates.”

There’s no doubt that states are pushing through legislation that not only criminalizes bullying but also sets new accountability standards for educators who fail to take action to stop it. In some instances the onus is being put on the students themselves, although it’s unclear how effective it will be to make them take an anti-bullying pledge as states like Maryland are now requiring.

Much of the push toward anti-bullying legislation comes in the wake of several high-profile cases of students committing suicide. There have been some significant questions raised about the Phoebe Prince case, a girl in South Hadley, Mass. who killed herself allegedly after being bullied by classmates.  The most aggressive pushback has come from Emily Bazelon of Slate.com, who has written extensively about the case and is at work on a book about bullying.

New Jersey swiftly passed anti-bullying laws in the wake of the  much-publicized suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. His roommate at Rutgers, Dharun Ravi, allegedly used a dorm room webcam to view Clementi kissing another man. (Ravi was convicted of spying on Clementi, and sentenced to 30 days in jail.)

The New Jersey law is both comprehensive and demanding. Anti-bullying lessons will be incorporated into instruction for students as young as kindergarten. High schools will be required to have anti-bullying coordinators and these efforts will be monitored by the state. Schools that fall short of the requirements face serious sanctions. New Jersey educators have argued the law is both unrealistic and unfair, and that teachers have enough to do in the day without adding another obligation.

I agree that teachers can’t be responsible for the behavior of every single student. But they certainly can influence it.

My middle school years which were a cauldron of adolescent politics, cliques and cruelty — some at my expense, some by me at the much-regretted expense of others.  It took the direct action of my eighth-grade science teacher to change my behavior. One afternoon she pulled me into her office, and told me how disappointed she was to see me engaging in such unnecessary drama. That conversation was the first of many, and along the way she helped me realize how my actions were affecting others. She forced me to consider the kind of person I wanted to be.

While my change in behavior cost me dearly in the popularity department at the time, I can look back with gratitude for my teacher’s timely intervention. I am sure my parents would have given me a similar lecture if she had the benefit of my teacher’s vantage point. Perhaps that’s why so much of the burden to prevent bullying, fairly or unfairly, rests with educators.

*Portions of this blog were previously published.



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