Numerous high-profile suicides from bullying (dubbed “bullycides”) have gained the public spotlight in recent years. Such sad cases are hardly new – they’ve been happening with regular occurrence for decades. Yet the public finally seems to have woken up to the issue. Media coverage of 6, 7, 8 young lives lost within the span of a few weeks has shed the spotlight on an issue that used to be invisible. In response to public outcry, many states have rushed to pass new anti-bullying laws or legislation in an attempt to address the problem.
In one of the more famous bullying cases, on June 30, 2008, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed an anti-Internet harassment law in the wake of Megan Meier’s death. A month earlier, Florida governor Charlie Crist signed the Jeffrey Johnson Stand Up for All Students Act in response to their own bullying problems. Recent suicides in Massachusetts prompted lawmakers there to pass one of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the United States. To date there are 47 states that have passed laws or legislation specifically designed to combat bullying, and many states are considering further ones.
Bullying Laws & State Statutes
Currently, there is no federal law that addresses bullying behavior specifically. However, there is also no need for one, as the topic is blanketly covered by other federal, state and local statutes. Amendments to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act requires states, districts, and schools to design/implement bullying and anti-harassment policies. On top of this, most state laws have their own statutes requiring local school boards to implement anti-bullying, anti-harassment and anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures as part of their safety plans. They also require local school boards to adopt a student violence and prevention policy that addresses bullying. In addition, most state and community-level policies reinforce a student’s right to attend public schools that are safe, secure, and peaceful. All of these things are on top of the fact that harassment in general is illegal throughout the United States.
Do Bullying Laws Help? Are More Anti-Bullying Laws Needed?
Whenever disaster strikes or some social problem comes bubbling up to the public spotlight, the response is as predictable as the rising of the sun: 1) Self-righteous indignation boils up in the community, 2) The public decries that something be done, 3) Politicians and community activists rush to create some bogus new law which accomplishes nothing, but which will allow them to claim victory over said problem, thereby pushing it under the rug again. Through this process, politicians get to pretend like they’re on top of the problem and are accomplishing something. Community activists get something neat and simple they can advocate for, and get to play the role of hero while pretending they’ve done something to address the problem. And the public can push the problem out of their conscious awareness again, wiping their conscious clean of its unpleasant thoughts while pretending the problem has been fixed. (Slater, 1976) It’s a win-win for everybody – except for those actually impacted by the problem, since none of the underlying problems have been addressed. So to sum it up, the campaign for newer or tougher anti-bullying laws does not move us even a fraction of a step closer to addressing the problem. All these campaigns do is provide comfort and affirmation to people who want to believe that highly complex problems can be solved if only the right words are written down on paper and pushed through congress. Bullying wasn’t created from the mumbo jumbo in state statutes, and so it will never be fixed by such efforts, either.
Worse yet, such measure tend to be ill-thought-out and produce tremendous collateral damage. I have yet to encounter such a crusade-based law that hasn’t created far more harm than it has prevented.
Legalities of bullying
Communities do not need new anti-bullying laws. Criminal statutes in every state already cover acts of bullying. For example…
- Assault laws make it illegal to hit, kick, push, shove, or even so much as put your hand on someone else in an aggressive way.
- Harassment laws make it illegal to continually taunt someone or otherwise impede upon their freedoms in the environment.
- Slander laws make it illegal to spread false rumors or gossip about someone, whether in cyberspace or the real world.
- Kidnapping and false imprisonment laws make it illegal to detain someone or impede their movements.
Every act of bullying you could name already falls under criminal statutes in some way. The problem, of course, is to enforce them without having to tie up every police resource to settle school disputes or handle youthful shenanigans. No new law is going to help clarify this conundrum, nor do anything to prevent bullying from occurring. Given the prevalence of bullying, every single resource in both police departments and the justice system could be tied up in dealing with bullying alone. This is impractical. The problem has never been about laws, it’s always been about knowing when and how to apply them.
As for getting “tougher” laws on the books – the brain-dead impulsive response of many Americans when it comes to social issues – this will only make things worse. We’re not dealing with monsters, but ordinary, insecure, impulsive adolescents. Destroying kids in order to save them is not the answer. Bullying is so rampant in our culture because we as a culture condone it in ways both subtle and direct. So rather than creating laws that allow us to look someplace other than the mirror, we need to focus on solutions that will actually help the situation. Arbitrarily crucifying a few teenagers to make examples out of them through tougher laws so that we have someone to point fingers at will not accomplish anything.