Education Opinion

The Bullying Problem

By Walt Gardner — March 07, 2012 3 min read
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Often thought of as an unfortunate but unavoidable part of growing up, bullying is finally being recognized for the serious problem it is. Yet “Bully,” a documentary to be released nationwide this month that is aimed at raising consciousness about the issue, may not be seen by students because of its R rating for profane language (“A ‘Bully’ pulpit for Weinstein Co.,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 6). It’s a telling commentary that we are more concerned about language (and sex) in movies than about violence.

The double standard is troubling because ignoring bullying can have tragic consequences. I’m referring to the documented cases of students who complained in vain to their teachers, and later committed suicide. That’s why the agreement reached on Mar. 5 between the Anoka-Hennepin school district, north of Minneapolis, and the federal government is being hailed as a national model (“Minnesota School District Reaches Agreement on Preventing Gay Bullying,” The New York Times, Mar. 7). The largest district in Minnesota will take steps to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation.

At the same time, however, it’s important to note that schools too often exacerbate the problem by overreacting. Consider the situation in New Jersey, which mandates that any bullying whatsoever be reported by a school employee within hours to a designated official who in turn informs the school board (“The Myths of Bullying,” Time, Mar. 12). According to Time, this included one student calling another a “retard,” which set off a sequence of events that resulted with the insult being filed with the state’s education department. If the bully applies to a state university years down the road, the admissions office would see the label.

I’m not minimizing the harm that bullying does, but where is common sense in this draconian process? There was a time when school officials were able to use their professional judgment in deciding how to handle bullying on a case-by-case basis. But the tide began to slowly change with the student-rights revolution of the 1960s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 that students had freedom of expression that could be limited only when it interfered substantially with the school’s educational mission.

But where does cyberbullying, which ranges from individual texts to group sites, fit in? According to a 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, one in five middle school students have been affected (“Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray,” The New York Times, Jun. 27, 2010). Because this form of bullying does not take place in school, it’s hard to know who is responsible for eliminating it. Even judges are confused because the issue is relatively new.

Today, all but two states have anti-bullying laws. The language of the laws differ somewhat from state to state, but what is clear is their intent. That’s why in the final analysis such programs as the Center for Civic Mediation, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that teaches students how to resolve conflict and coexist peacefully, are so promising (“Settling school disputes before they escalate,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5). Mediators in the program don’t take sides or give advice. Instead they try to help students identify the root of the conflict.

I wonder, though, whatever became of detention? For example, New York State requires that every school have rooms for students serving detention or in-school suspension. But budget woes have meant that many schools have been unable to follow the regulations. That’s too bad because detention can be a simple way of teaching students that there are consequences for their behavior without stigmatizing them for life.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.