Student Well-Being

Do State Laws Suppress Bullying at Schools and Online?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 05, 2015 2 min read
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Even a basic state anti-bullying law is associated with significantly lower in-person and cyber-bullying reported in schools, according to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

In states that included at least one of 16 federally recommended anti-bullying components in their anti-bullying laws, researchers found high school students in a 2011 federal survey were 24 percent less likely to report being bullied generally, and 20 percent less likely to report being bullied online than students in states whose anti-bullying laws did not comply with federal guidance.

“It’s hard to believe, but 15 years ago we didn’t have any state laws on bullying,” said Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, lead author of the study and an associate professor of socio-medical sciences Columbia University’s school of public health. “Then there was this huge proliferation and now all 50 states have laws. But even though there’s been a lot of anti-bullying activity, there hasn’t been a lot of research on whether these laws are really effective.”

Hatzenbuehler and colleagues at the University of Iowa at Iowa City and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta analyzed reports of bullying, both in school and online from nearly 60,000 students in grades 9-12. The students were part of the federal Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, in 25 states that passed anti-bullying laws between 1999 and 2011. (All 50 states now have school bullying laws, though some are considered stronger than others).

Basic Ingredients to Combat Bullying

About 1 in 5 students reported being bullied at school, ranging from a low of just over 14 percent in Alabama to a high of nearly 27 percent in South Dakota. Cyberbullying was less common, with 15.5 percent of students reporting being bullied online. Alabama again had the lowest rate, at just over 12 percent, and South Dakota had the highest rate of cyberbullying reported, at nearly 20 percent.

Three pretty basic components of state laws were associated with lower levels of reported bullying, Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues found:

  • Describing the illegal bullying behaviors;
  • Describing schools’ scope of jurisdiction to restrict bullying; and
  • Requiring districts to develop and implement their own local policies on bullying.

At the time the study was conducted, 23 states required districts to implement policies, and 22 states each clearly described bullying behaviors and districts’ jurisdiction.

This is hardly rocket science, and Hatzenbuehler said there’s still a lot to unpack in future studies. For example, the study does not look at bullying among younger students, though prior research has suggested bullying can be even more prevalent in middle school than high school. Moreover, researchers were not able to compare bullying for high-risk groups—such as students with disabilities or those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender—because not all states require districts to track student characteristics of those reporting bullying.

“I think this is an important step but I see it very much as a first step,” Hatzenbuehler said. “In many cases the legislation has been really reactive to particular school events. We need partnerships between legislators and social scientists to see which laws are most effective.”


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.