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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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  • 1

    I support all types of Hate Crime laws and this one as well....

  • 2

    I think the whole issue of protected classes in anti-bullying laws is a red herring. The problem is the bullying, whether it's against a protected class or not.Bullying is bullying regardless of the target.

    Any creative kid can find something to pick on someone about. Only children? Wears pink? Parents are somehow notorious? Stutters? Said the wrong thing in front of a merciless audience?

    The aggression is the problem. Deal with it on that principle. Avoid the whole issue of protected classes and AFAM won't have a leg to stand on.

  • 3

    I do too, gbt2, and I think that srvance has a point. The act is wrong regardless of the motivation. Don't tie motivation to it = no "protected classes" except that of Human Being.

  • 4

    I agree that adults need to step-in and/or set a good example in cases of bullying. The latest case in MA is certainly a case in point however, the children being prosecuted are being brought up on charges based on heresay and the word of other children, not adult witnesses.
    Who is going to prevent the accused children from being bullied by the system? Again, we have an overzealous DA looking to make her name based on innuendo and heresay (does everyone remember Duke's lacrosse team?). It is tragic that a girl took her own life, and I am not trying to blame the dead girl but do we know the real reason she took her life? I know that one of the accused told the Prince girl "Stay away from my boyfriend"! This was after the Prince girl went around school telling everyone she slept with this girl's boyfriend. She never threatened the Prince girl, never told her to kill herself, just stood-up for her supposed boyfriend. This type of "trash talk" goes on every day in every high school in the country. This is nothing new. Teen years are cruel, mean, and hard on everyone. Will parents and teachers step-in on every teen arguement?
    The unfortunate girl who committed suicide was new to the community. An easy target for ridicule and teasing. Do we know if she was suicidal before moving to America? Do we know if she was under the care of a mental health practioner? Do we know if her family tried to get her help? Many children get teased and do not commit suicide. I think the system is victimizing some of the children who are being held responsible for the suicide of their classmate!

  • 5

    Leslie, you seem way too casual about the repercussions of kids getting teased in school. Just because it's been happening for generations doesn't mean it should continue. Remember, it wasn't all that long ago that women and African Americans weren't allowed to vote. Did that mean it was morally acceptable?

    No, we don't always know if someone has the potential for suicide -- all the more reason to promote an atmosphere that is welcoming to ALL students. I can recall instances of bullying dating back as far as the 2nd grade. Sometimes I was the subject of the bullying; sometimes it was other kids. There was race/aggression bullying and there was class (as in socioeconomic) bullying. Teachers often turned a blind eye and deaf ear to it, and in some cases even facilitated it.

    Since you like to hypothesize, can you conceive of an atmosphere in which the Prince girl told "everyone" she had slept with the boyfriend of one of the accused as a means of retaliation? How much do you expect one teenager to tolerate?

    An atmosphere that is tolerant of bullying is bad for the bullies as well as the victims. How are these people going to function as members of society, thinking they can abuse its less fortunate members without fear of recrimination? Well, some of them are probably going to be those financial advisers who end up raiding your retirement account. That pathological sense of entitlement had to start somewhere.

    Whenever I read or hear a story in the news of a young child who has killed another and how we should grant such a child leniency -- after all this is a child, there is the possibility of rehabilitation, my reaction is if this person is capable of murder as a child, what do you think we can expect from him/her as an adult?

    This fostering of a sociopathological mentality in young people has to stop, and the only way to stop it is to show there are consequences.

  • 6

    I am a retired secondary teacher with thirty years experience in public secondaray schools, twenty years at my last school. I urged administration for thirty years to remove classroom bullies until they remediated themselves in order to protect the vast majority of students who will work and who will respect their teachers and their classmates. I was always rebuffed with the excuse that "good" teachers can handle any classroom or hall way bullying. Finally, one principal screamed at me in his office that "you don't understand the politics of the money!" What he meant was district administration judges school principals by the number of students they keep on campus since the districts receive funds based on attendance. Principals, who have no tenure, are evaluated primarily upon the amount of money they bring into the district by keeping the most students on campus daily. If a principal reports a repeated offender bully for suspension or expulsion he or she is marked down at the district level for losing funds.

    I repeatedly reminded principals that keeping bullies on campus was driving away good students to other schools and to charter schools in larger numbers, but this logic never got traction over my thirty years teaching at the secondary level.

    Until school funding is detached from attendance, districts will continue to require principals to keep bullies in classrooms and tell teachers to just "deal with it" or be reprimanded as a bad teacher.

  • 7

    This is nonsense. Bullying, as it has occurred so far in the Irish girl's case and this one in Mich, is already against the law. It is called "assault and battery" and while it is probably a misdemeanor, all that need occur is to have it extended to a felony in "special circumstances" such as these are, and have these under-age beasts tried as adults. If a 12-year-old commits an "adult" crime, then s/he should be tried as an adult. One test of "adulthood" in the perpetrator's mind should be the test of repeated offenses. If the "child" commits the same act repeatedly then, s/he knows what s/he is doing and has malice aforethought -- premeditation. In the case of the Irish girl, she was repeatedly taunted, bullied and threatened. . . case closed. The sociopathic beasts who killed her have the minds of adults and should be tried as adults. No big I.Q. test here and no need to enact more laws. Simply alter the existing laws slightly and interpret them properly. And if you find judges who are incapable of doing so, legislate a way to remove them. THAT is the law that is needed.

  • 8

    Of course, the better remedy to school bullies is to home school. Middle class parents can afford to teach their own. The entire idea of socialized free school for all is outrageous. If personal responsibility had been insisted upon through the 1880s and early 1900s, only the poor would receive free school. The middle class can teach their own, pay for tutors or use private schools.

    Before I would let my child endure this bullying foolishness, I would move to a location that was cheap enough that I could afford to homeschool him. In a civilized society, people matter more than money. It is time we began to generate social pressure on parents to shoulder their responsibility as parents or suffer dire consequences.

  • 9

    I can never understand excuses whenever it comes to protecting our children and others in peril..One of the options that can assist in the protection of those in peril are laws..

    I have no problem in our nation of a "protected class of citizens" including children and others who are in peril.

    My premise remains the same I support Hate Crime laws and antibully laws and other laws which protect the innocent etc. I find it backward and underdeveloped as a society not to protect those in need of protection.

    I find it insane to reward criminals who harm and place fear into others based upon gender, race , age(children). I reject the notion that evil intent should be given a pass .

    I support addtional sanctions against those who intentionaly seek out others to harm them because of thier"protected class"

  • 10

    Although I've never been a big fan of the concept of home-schooling, this has certainly caused me to reconsider. At the same time I worry that home-schooling might isolate the child too much. Further, I know there are subject areas in which I would not be competent to teach, regardless of how much preparation I attempted.

    Last I heard, the U.S.A.'s Middle Class was nearly non-existent, and even if it weren't, are we to infer that only children from poorer families deserve to be put at risk? It is often the case that they are, anyway.

    I have no problem with a "protected class of citizens" provided those receiving the protection are the members of society truly in need of it. Children who are being bullied clearly are.

    If laws already exist to protect this segment of society, they are obviously not being enforced (no surprise there); therefore legislation needs to be drafted to create stronger laws. The consequences must be two-fold: 1) Offenders must be punished; 2) Those failing to enforce and prosecute the crimes relating to such a law must also bear clearly defined penalties. Educators are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse. What is bullying if not an example of that?

    Additionally, I do think the former teacher who mentioned truancy rates also added a piece of the equation not previously considered.

    • 10.1

      If you live in a rural area, then isolation would have to be a consideration, but it is anyway.

      However, if you live within 60 miles of a metro area or a suburb of 50,000 or more, isolation is not a problem. Every such area has huge numbers of homeschoolers and all you have to do is post a notice on the Internet or at the local supermarket for other homeschoolers. You will be amazed at how many there are in your area. Your public library may have information as well. Many sophisticated library systems even have special events and schedules for homeschooled children, since they are available in mid-day and homeschooling parents (except for rare shirkers) do not "drop off" their children. It is 100% hands-on parenting. And you have no worries about social issues like bullying or peer pressure. You and your child will love it.

  • 11

    Oh, and by the way, regarding the subjects you are not competent to teach, in the modern world with Internet tutoring services, online schools, DVD programs, etc., both free and for a fee, you never have to worry about competence. Studies of classroom management have shown that only 20% of classroom time is spent on actual learning; the rest is crowd control and administrative activity. If you remove the distractions and stress from your child's school world, you might be amazed at how easily s/he learns and enjoys it. There are some very good resources available on the Internet, if you look for them. I can recommend one, but it might violate this blog site's commercial rules. Here's a hint: A great website has 2 words; first word is "The" and the second word finishes these compound words -- cuff _ _ _ _ or chain _ _ _ _ fence or a chain is only as strong as its weakest _ _ _ _. You may find it interesting.

  • 12

    Apples and oranges.

    Point of the anti-bullying legislation is to require schools to have policies and take action - not to criminalize name calling. Anti-bias crime laws increase the sentencing range based upon motive for crime.

    What they do have in common is that neither creates special classes of victims, nor limits anyone's free speech. Those are just the straw men constructed by those who are so anti-gay as to put bashing before public safety.

    Darrell, I would really like to discuss this with you further in a more conducive forum, but unsure how to reach you and don't want to post my contact info. Hopefully you have access to sender's emails and will choose to reach out.

  • 13

    Please document these able to prove they are not slander, the truth is the truth........ and then post the Family Tree of the Bully on here, list the entire family and their place of employment and where they all attend school, be sure to use the city, county and state. Peer disapproval has always been the best medicine for such behavior. I bet when the parents get a taste of the humiliation it will stop or at least slow down. When someone does a search for this issue on google, etc., we will then see the name of the BULLY and their family, school place of employment and any other available information. I would probably even list their address and the cars they drive. Let us put a stop to this.

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