Stopping Bullying in Schools

The outcry following the suicides of two Massachusetts students, who killed themselves after being subjected to intense bullying in the past year, culminated in Gov. Deval Patrick signing anti-bullying legislation on May 3rd.  The Massachusetts House and Senate passed the bill unanimously, following more than a decade of work by advocates.  The law prohibits actions that cause emotional or physical harm to students, including taunting over the Internet.  Faculty and students are required to have anti-bullying training and parents must be informed of incidents at school.  School employees, including custodians and cafeteria workers, must report incidents of suspected bullying and principals must investigate each case. 

Massachusetts now joins 42 other states with an anti-bullying bill, leaving Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama, Hawaii (last introduced in 2009), Mississippi, and Montana yet to join them.  Wisconsin's SB 154 is on Gov. Doyle’s desk and would require school boards to enact anti-bullying policies and implement procedures for investigating and disciplining incidences of bullying.  A Michigan bill (HB 4580) is stalled in committee, but Gov. Granholm has stated she will sign the bill if it reaches her desk. 

Protecting LGBT Youth:  In Michigan, the sticking point, as with many other more recent state bills, is whether or not to give specific mention to LGBT youth.  A compromise not pleasing to either side is in negotiations, tweaking the language to read, “[Bullying] is reasonably perceived to be motivated by animus or by actual or perceived characteristic.”  The American Family Association of Michigan is lobbying hard to kill the bill.  Similar socially conservative "family" organizations have fought anti-bullying bills in other states.

Studies have shown that LBGT youth are especially targeted for bullying.  A 2007 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 9 out of 10 LGBT students (86.2%) experienced harassment at school in the past year, three-fifths (60.8%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and about a third (32.7%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe.

Advocates in Massachusetts were disappointed that LGBT youth were not specified as a class in need of protection in the bill just enacted there.  On the other hand, North Carolina last year passed SB 526, requiring schools to adopt strong policies against bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, despite a protracted and oftentimes mean-spirited fight.  This was the first time the terms "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" appear in the North Carolina General Statutes -- a significant victory for Equality North Carolina, which joined forces with a statewide school violence prevention coalition and other allies to support the bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Glazier.

Upgrading Old Statutes:  Many states with existing anti-bullying legislation are experiencing “upgrade” bills to include cyberbullying, training and/or to add “sexual orientation or gender identity” to the list of protected students.  Cyberbullying -- defined as communicating harmful, violent and/or malicious words and/or pictures through the means of technology -- has been a growing area of harassment that states are increasingly seeking to address

This legislative session, Illinois lawmakers passed an upgrade to their existing bill, now including LGBT students specifically and mandating tolerance training.  The Senate bill passed with all but two senators supporting it; the House passed the bill unanimously.  Gov. Quinn is expected to sign the bill within the week.

The key focus of all these anti-bullying laws is to hold school officials accountable for developing policies to prohibit bullying.  Where they vary is in the details of bullying prevention programs, training for staff, and accountability measures to require individuals to report school bullying incidents.  And regardless of the statute language, assuring they are interpreted and implemented appropriately is an ongoing challenge.

Massachusetts: Comprehensive Anti-Bullying Bill Passes
Colorado:  Colorado School Violence Prevention and Student Discipline Manual, Office of the Attorney General
New Jersey:  Model Policy and Guidance for Prohibiting Harassment, New Jersey Department of Education
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN): National School Climate Survey: Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT Students Harassed
Human Rights Campaign: Statewide School Laws and Policies (Map)
National Institute on Mental Health: Anti-Bullying Resources