Thoughts About Anti-Bullying Laws
In the wake of the suicide last month of a 12-year-old Michigan girl who'd been harassed by bullies, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is renewing her calls for the state to enact strong anti-bullying legislation.
Previously, the governor had proposed that the state create a list of protected groups, people who are likely targets for bullies. Of course, leave it to some folks to stand against the idea on the grounds that certain groups are, apparently, not worth protecting...
The legislation has been hamstrung by groups like the American Family Association of Michigan because of the enumerated, or listed, protected classes. That list includes sexual orientation and gender identity. The AFA claims passage of the legislation would be the first time Michigan law recognized either category as a protected class. That, they say, is part of a broader “homosexual agenda.”
Admittedly, I've got concerns about legislation like this, too (more on that in a minute)—but I find it profoundly troublesome that a group claiming to stand for "families" would oppose affording basic protection to gay and lesbian young people on the grounds that safeguarding them from harm equates bowing to a "broader homosexual agenda." So in its never-ending fight to stem the spread of "the Gay," the AFA of Michigan fights the proposal because it believes either that homosexual teens aren't really the victims of targeted harassment and violence (which is what bullying pretty much is) or that it's OK to leave them unprotected because, well, they deserve to be beaten and slurred?
No matter how you slice that kind of thinking, to paraphrase an old candy bar commercial, it comes up nuts.
That said, though, I don't know how enthusiastically I'm ready to embrace anti-bullying laws, either.
Certainly I believe that if you're going to protect one targeted group with a law, that law should protect everyone else, too. And obviously, the harassment endured by young women like Kimberly Linczeski and Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts girl who killed herself after being bullied by schoolmates, should never be accepted, condoned or ignored. Schools, neighborhoods, parents—everyone needs to work together to create and enforce programs and policies that protect our weakest children against bullies.
But much as I do with hate-crime legislation, I wonder how much more we need to add to already-existing laws designed to prevent and punish these kinds of cruel and unrelenting attacks. I don't doubt the intentions of anyone who backs such laws, but I do wonder at what point it becomes feel-good grandstanding rather than effective legislative remediation. I'm not the only one, either...
If the prosecution of Prince's alleged tormenters is merited, it suggests that laws against bullying may be redundant, at best. At worst, (and often) anti-bullying regulation is overbroad, exerting control over students outside of school and infringing unduly on speech, especially when it addresses cyber-bullying. The rash of recent cases targeting student online speech (especially speech critical of administrators), the use of child porn laws to prosecute teens for sexting, and the scandalous use of webcams to spy on students at home should make us skeptical of legislation aimed at curbing verbal "abuses." Unprecedented freedom to speak and opportunities to disseminate speech (for better and worse) have naturally resulted in some harsh crackdowns on speech.
This does not mean that school administrators should only respond to bullying that is so severe, willful, and prolonged that it constitutes criminal harassment or stalking; but it may mean that unless bullying does constitute a criminal offense, it is not the business of legislators.
I don't want to seem too quickly dismissive of any initiatives aimed at protecting the vulnerable. Nor do I want to give the impression that I think the issue is somehow undeserving of legislative attention. It's not, especially not when young people are dying. Bullying is a far bigger deal than just "kids being kids."
But there are already laws against harassment, stalking, assault, battery and any number of other terrible acts that could be construed as bullying. And while I appreciate the calls for stronger legal safeguards, I just hope that tragedies like these suicides will help prompt school officials and others looking to protect young people to do more with the tools they already have.
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