Laws meant to protect youngsters from playground bullies are largely ineffective, an analysis shows, and several students’ recent suicides have parents and advocates calling for tougher measures.
Forty-four states expressly ban bullying, a legislative legacy of a rash of school shootings in the late 1990s, yet few if any of those measures have identified children who excessively pick on their peers, an Associated Press review has found. And few offer any method for ensuring the policies are enforced, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The issue was spotlighted in April when 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera committed suicide at his Atlanta-area home after he was repeatedly tormented in school, according to his parents. Officials of the DeKalb County, Ga., district denied that contention, and an independent review found bullying wasn’t a factor—a conclusion his family rejects.
Regardless, Georgia’s law, among the toughest in the nation, still would not have applied: It only covers students in grades 6-12. Jaheem was a 5th grader.
Georgia’s law has one of the largest gaps between what it requires of districts and the tools it gives them for meeting those requirements. The state doesn’t collect data specifically on bullying occurrences, despite legislation that promises to strip state funding from schools failing to take action after three instances involving a bully.
After Jaheem’s death, other parents came forward to say that their children had been bullied and that school officials did nothing with the complaints, rendering the state’s law useless.
“There is a systematic problem,” said Mike Wilson, who said his 12-year-old daughter was bullied for two years in the same district where Jaheem Herrera died. “The lower-level employees, the teachers, the principals, are trying to keep this information suppressed at the lowest-possible level.”
Only six states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin—and the District of Columbia lack specific laws targeting school bullying, according to the NSCL. Most states require school districts to adopt open-ended policies to prohibit bullying and harassment.
While some laws direct state education officials to formulate model policies that districts should mimic, they offer little to make sure the policies are enforced; only a handful of states require specific data-gathering meant to ensure bullying is being monitored, for instance.
“The states themselves can’t micromanage a school district—but they can say to a school district, ‘Look, you have to have consequences,’ ” said Brenda High, whose Web site Bully Police USA, at www.bullypolice.org, tracks anti-bullying laws across the nation, and who advocates strict repercussions for bullies. The Washington state-based advocate’s son, Jared, was 13 when he committed suicide in 1998 after complaining of bullying.
“It needs to be written into the law that bullying has the same consequences as assault,” Ms. High said. “The records and such need to be kept so that if the child is a chronic bully, [he or she]—after so many instances—will end up in an alternative school.”
Alaska and Georgia have particularly specific statutes. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development must compile annual data on bullying complaints and report the information to the legislature.
Georgia’s 10-year-old law goes a step further. It specifies that three instances of bullying is grounds for transfer to an alternative school, away from the victim. School systems not in compliance forfeit state funding, according to the law.Despite that record-keeping provision, the Georgia Department of Education cannot say whether any child has been transferred as a result of bullying, because the department only tracks the number for broader offenses, including fighting and threats, spokesman Dana Tofig said.
No school has lost funding under the law, according to the department.
Some districts say that they keep track of complaints, especially those involving a single child being bullied more than once, and that they address those cases. Without a legal obligation to report such data to state officials, however, it’s unclear how any such statistics are used.
In 2007, nearly a third of students ages 12 to 18 reported having been bullied during the school year, according to data on more than 55 million students compiled annually by the National Center for Education Statistics.
That’s up from as few as one in 10 students in the 1990s, though bullying experts point out the rising numbers may reflect more reports of bullying, not necessarily more incidents.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Effectiveness of State Anti-Bullying Laws Questioned