School Climate & Safety

New Laws Take Aim at Bullying

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 18, 2011 9 min read
Catherine Devine, 22, works on her laptop at home in Kings Park, N.Y., years after her first brush with an online bully. Her state is one of eight that does not include cyberbullying in its definition of bullying.

The issue of bullying rose on state legislative agendas this year, with 21 states passing anti-bullying laws—some of which expanded schools’ responsibilities to keep a check on any harassment that goes on among their students.

States set out to write clear definitions of bullying and to regulate school policies and responsibilities in reaction to the U.S. Department of Education’s stepped-up focus on the behavior, renewed public concerns following a series of high-profile student suicides, and an increase in cyberbullying.

The most far-reaching of the new crop of laws is arguably New Jersey’s, which requires each school to have an anti-bullying specialist and to report incidents to the state.

Laws passed this year by other states vary in their scope and prescriptiveness, reflecting debate about the respective roles of state, local, and federal governments in dealing with school issues like bullying.

But anti-bullying legislation is a relatively new priority, and legislatures are still refining their strategies.

“In 2005, there were fewer policies, and they were all over the place. In 2011, we’re seeing greater consistency. ... Some requirements for schools are increasing, and there’s greater specificity about what constitutes bullying,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

States began passing anti-bullying laws in earnest in the early 2000s, according to Josh Cunningham, a research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, also in Denver. By late 2005, 17 states had passed anti-bullying legislation. By last week, only Michigan, Montana, and South Dakota had no such laws, according to the ECS.

In addition to states like North Dakota that adopted anti-bullying bills for the first time this year, many states that already had such laws in place strengthened or revised their requirements for schools this year, including California, where three bills involving bullying were signed into law last week.

On the Front Burner

Bullying has come to the forefront this decade partly as a result of the deaths of several students and the rise of the behavior online. States in which suicides have occurred, such as New Jersey, cite the high-publicity tragedies as spurs in the creation of their laws. The Obama administration has also drawn attention to the issue, holding conferences in recent years and issuing new guidance for schools on their responsibilities to look out for the civil rights of bully victims.

Kevin B. Jennings, who served in the administration as the Education Department’s assistant deputy secretary for safe and drug-free schools until this year, also pushed a strong anti-bullying message.

Though the laws vary from state to state, several trends in this year’s batch were clear, according to the NCSL and the ECS. They include:

• Expanding the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying, with schools in states like Connecticut and New Jersey now responsible for addressing some incidents that take place off school property.

• Spelling out who are the potential victims of bullying, such as students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

• Increasing protections for victims of bullying and those who report it.

• Mandating professional development for teachers and education for students on the issue.

Notwithstanding those trends, however, no two states’ laws are exactly the same, according to the ECS’ Ms. Zinth.

For instance, New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, besides requiring schools to have an anti-bullying specialist on staff, makes schools responsible for incidents off school grounds that are shown to affect the school environment, orders schools to complete an extensive checklist, and sets a timeline and statewide procedure for responding to bullying incidents when they occur.

Richard Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said his state’s law was “well-intentioned” but “overly prescriptive.”

“We support establishing a school culture that provides safety and demands and teaches respect among students,” he said. “What we can’t say is that schools’ efforts will control the behavior of everybody outside the school.”

Colorado took a more local approach, expanding its definition of bullying to include cyberbullying and providing grants for schools to implement prevention programs. But it stopped short of requiring schools to report bullying data to the state.

A Federal Role

The federal Education Department sent a clear signal to schools to take a stronger stance on bullying last October with a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding schools that failure to properly address bullying cases could violate students’ civil rights. The department backed up that warning this July when it wrapped up an investigation of California’s Techachapi district and concluded that school officials there had violated federal discrimination and harassment laws by failing to stop or prevent Seth Walsh from being repeatedly teased and bullied by his middle school peers. The 13-year-old hanged himself in 2010, and his family said the constant bullying led to his death.

The district agreed in July to change its policies related to sexual and gender-based harassment and provide training for staff and students.

However, some advocacy groups are pushing for the federal government to address the behavior more formally. “If you look at all of the state and local laws and policies that deal with bullying, they’re fairly inconsistent,” said Kelly Vaillancourt, the director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists, in Bethesda, Md. “Students who move from state to state to state may not have the same protections.”

Protected Classes

The school psychologists’ association and several other groups are advocating a Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would define the behaviors that constitute bullying and enumerate the categories of students who must be protected from it.

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services, in Cleveland, a school safety consulting group, said mandates specifying which student groups are protected under anti-bullying laws do not provide administrators with new resources for preventing bullying and have become overly political.

“School safety and bullying have become politicized to the point where bullying is little more than a code word by special interest groups to advance a civil rights agenda,” he said.

But Shawn Gaylord, the director of public policy at the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Washington office, said enumeration was critical and has been shown to reduce bullying: The organization’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that fewer students in schools with enumerated policies heard homophobic remarks frequently than in schools with nonspecific or no policies. “We know that that’s how teachers, parents, and students know they’re included and protected,” he said.

Local school boards shouldn’t be concerned about federal policies, Mr. Gaylord said. “If the federal government or state government lays down some requirements within a state or fed law,” he noted, “it leaves quite a lot of room for communities to enhance their polices. … It shouldn’t be seen as tying the hands of local districts or states to react to their own concerns.”

Some state legislators said they took care to avoid treading on the authority of their districts. In Texas, state Rep. Diane Patrick, a Republican, who wrote her state’s new anti-bullying law, said: “We have 1,000-plus school districts. One size does not fit all. Our goal was to provide a framework wherein local school districts can make the decisions that are best for their communities.”

The Texas law includes anti-bullying in the state’s health curriculum and requires districts to create anti-bullying policies. Texas districts are not responsible for incidents, such as cyberbullying attacks, that take place off school grounds.

M. Douglas Johnson, the executive director of the North Dakota Association of School Administrators, said his state’s law also emphasizes local authority. “The way the state law is written gives the local level the ability to write its own policies,” he said.

The North Dakota School Board Association crafted a model anti-bullying policy, but some in North Dakota also have gotten creative. The school district in Bismarck has set up a hotline through which students can anonymously report incidents via text message.

Covering Costs

Even in states where lawmakers support more comprehensive anti-bullying measures, however, there may be challenges in implementing them.

In New Jersey, Mr. Bozza of the administrators’ association said the lack of funding for the new requirements was a concern.

Bruce Caughey, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said funding concerns had led Colorado to avoid including new reporting measures in its anti-bullying law. “We were resisting efforts to do a lot of new data and reporting that would be too onerous to implement well as we’re cutting staff,” he said.

Stephanie Papas, a bullying consultant for California’s education department, said states were learning from each other. Her state “tends to be somewhere in the middle,” she said. “The good thing about legislation is that we can clarify any unexpected or unintended consequences through guidance or subsequent pieces of legislation.”

The three bills signed this month in California set a more stringent timeline for investigation of incidents, require that districts adopt policies prohibiting bullying, clarify that cyberbullying is an issue schools should address, and expand the definition of bullying.

Several states considered the issue during this session, but ended up not passing any measures. In New York, where an anti-bullying law was adopted in 2010, a new bill was introduced to combat cyberbullying but not passed before the session ended. The suicide of a high school freshman in Williamsville last month was linked to cyberbullying and brought new attention to the state’s definition of the behavior. New York is one of only eight states that does not include cyberbullying in its definition.

To the dismay of state Sen. John J. Gleason, a Democrat, Michigan lawmakers also considered but did not pass an anti-bullying bill this year, in part because of disagreement about whether it created a “protected class” for gay students.

Mr. Gleason held a sit-in early this month to bring attention to the lack of a law, ending his protest on Oct. 8 upon learning that the legislature would consider a bill on the topic in its upcoming session.

A bill in South Dakota that would have required schools to have anti-bullying policies also failed, with some lawmakers saying it would take control away from local districts.

Though the specifics are hotly debated, many lawmakers are eager to respond to parents’ desire to keep their children safe in school, said Rep. Patrick of Texas.

On the day her anti-bullying bill passed, she said, “one of the families of a victim of bullying—a young man who’d committed suicide at 11—was there. It felt really good that we could do something that made them feel that their son’s death had contributed to something positive.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Take Aim At Bullying

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