Equity & Diversity

School Bullying Policies Fall Short, Fail to Protect All Students, Report Says

By Evie Blad — July 17, 2015 4 min read
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After the passage of Montana’s school bullying bill this year, every state in the country now has a law on the books addressing this pervasive and problematic form of peer harassment. So it’s time to take a victory lap, right?!

Maybe not.

For starters, not all state bullying laws are created equal.

After years of debate, Montana’s final bill was amended to the point that it doesn’t even require local school districts to adopt policies that ban bullying, set consequences for it, or create mechanisms for reporting it. Bullying experts I’ve talked to say that leaves the state’s new law without the teeth necessary to make a difference.

Even in states that require local anti-bullying policies, many districts don’t have them.

In 2011, 29.5 percent of U.S. public school districts didn’t have anti-bullying policies, including many districts in states that require them, according to a report published by GLSEN this week. In states with such mandates, 26.3 percent of districts didn’t have local policies, according to the report, called “From Statehouse to Schoolhouse: Anti-Bullying Policy Efforts in U.S. States and School Districts.”

The report “illustrates the gap that can emerge between the intentions of a law and the effectiveness of its implementation via policy and regulations. There are still many school districts in the U.S. that have failed to institute policy protections, even in states which require them by law,” its authors wrote.

“At GLSEN, our watchword has always been that the passage of a law or adoption of a policy is not the end of the work but simply the end of the beginning,” the report says. “We must then move into the next phase of our work, trying to ensure that the impact of laws passed in statehouses is felt in schoolhouses at the local level.”

Check out this graphic from the report that shows how many districts in each state had bullying policies in place in 2011.

Many district-level anti-bullying policies are unspecific or ineffective, advocates say.

Organizations like GLSEN advocate for anti-bullying policies that name protected categories of students, explicitly prohibiting bullying on the basis of issues like race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Those last two are a sticking point for some states—legislatures often spike provisions related to sex and gender out of fears they will chill free speech for students who oppose things like same-sex marriage for religious reasons.

As of 2014, 31 states did not require protections for LGBT students in their local bullying policies; 18 included protections for LGBT students; and one (Montana) didn’t require local polices at all, according to the GLSEN report.

And many districts’ policies didn’t meet all of their state’s criteria, the report says. Of the U.S. school districts that had anti-bullying policies in 2011, just 42.6 percent enumerated protections for students based upon their actual or perceived sexual orientation, and just 14.1 percent enumerated protections for students based upon their gender identity or gender expression.

Of course, some have made an argument that listing specific categories of prohibited bullying isn’t as important as GLSEN suggests. Most agree that bullying should be addressed, regardless of the reason, but not everyone agrees on how to get there.

GLSEN cites its own school climate surveys to support its position, noting that LGBT students in areas with bullying policies that list LGBT students feel safer in school. But that is correlational data. A reader suggests more progressive parts of the country may be more likely to pass LGBT-inclusive policies, and those areas may also seem more open and inclusive to LGBT students.

So how should policy makers and educators tackle bullying?

GLSEN’s strategy includes four elements that mirror advice from many researchers in the field:

  • Polices should include protected categories of students.
  • There should be training provisions for educators on recognizing and addressing bullying.
  • States should have reporting requirements to hold schools accountable for progress.

According to the report, only 3 percent of district policies reviewed in 2011 included all three of these elements.

On the national level, U.S. Senators Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Casey, D-Penn., reintroduced in January the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would essentially mandate local anti-bullying policies. It prescribes required elements for those policies, including that they explicitly prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Casey proposed the Safe Schools Improvement Act as an amendment during the Senate’s recent discussions of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. He withdrew the amendment before it could get a vote.

Read more about bullying and LGBT students:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.