States

Legislatures Take On Bullies With New Laws

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 16, 2001 7 min read
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Legislators from Washington state to West Virginia, hoping to stave off violence committed by students who have been picked on by their peers, are taking action this year on bills designed to prevent bullying in schools.

The Colorado legislature this spring passed a law mandating that every school district in the state have an anti-bullying policy in place. Lawmakers cited the deadly 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., as a major impetus for the measure.

Don Lee

“I represent the Columbine community,” Rep. Don Lee, a Republican who sponsored a version of the bill in the House, said last week. "[Bullying] was one of the factors cited as contributing to what happened at Columbine.”

But Colorado is not alone. The New Hampshire legislature passed a law last May requiring its schools to have policies on bullying. The West Virginia legislature followed suit with a similar law earlier this spring. And anti-bully bills are pending in Illinois, New York, and Washington state.

The concept has been most controversial in Washington state, where a Christian Coalition group opposed the bully-prevention bill, contending that it was a cover for gay-rights efforts that could eventually force schools to teach about homosexuality in a positive light.

But the wave of anti-bullying legislation has raised other issues as well. While virtually everyone agrees it’s a good thing for schools to reduce bullying, some people question whether state laws that require policies on such behavior really will help schools achieve that goal.

“I don’t think the legal avenue has much promise,” said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public-health practice at Harvard University and an expert on violence prevention. “I can see this becoming the zero-tolerance fad of today.”

“To the extent that this pursuit of anti-bullying laws takes us further down the punishment track and distracts us from the true preventive activities,” Ms. Prothrow-Stith said, “it could hurt.”

The prevention of bullying, she argues, requires a full set of activities that include improving the climate in schools, establishing conflict-resolution and peer-mediation programs, and training faculty and staff members to properly handle bullying incidents.

‘It’s Time’

In Colorado, the anti-bullying bill stirred some controversy because a number of legislators feared it extended the hand of government into matters that should be handled on the local level.

“There were quite a few people who didn’t think that it was needed, and I’m not sure it’s going to do any good,” said Rep. Ken Arnold, a Republican who voted for the bill.

But he added that he believes that “it’s time we put an end to the bullying and the hating, the bigger kids picking on the little kids. It’s time the people in the schools—the teachers, the principals, the counselors—did something.”

Keith C. King

Keith C. King, another Republican representative in Colorado who is the vice chairman of the House education committee, said he voted against the bill because he feared it would usurp the role of parents in teaching their children how to treat other people respectfully.

“The more government takes over the role of parenting,” he said, “the less people parent.”

Some Colorado schools have taken on bullies on their own. After the killings at Columbine High two years ago the neighboring Cherry Creek district stepped up its efforts to “bullyproof” its schools.

“Our superintendent was very clear that things are not the same,” said William Porter, Cherry Creek’s director of student-achievement services. The 42,000-student district is located 10 miles from Columbine High, where two students went on a shooting rampage on April 20, 1999, fatally wounding 12 other students and one teacher before taking their own lives.

Even before Columbine, some Cherry Creek schools had started to teach an anti-bullying curriculum, written by Mr. Porter. It aims to convert what he calls the “silent majority"—the student bystanders who witness bullying yet are neither bullies nor victims themselves—to what he refers to as the “caring majority.” The goal, he said, is to get students who see bullying to stick up for the victims or report incidents to adults.

After the Columbine shooting, Cherry Creek officials mandated that every school in the district have such a violence-prevention program that discouraged bullying. Mr. Porter said the requirement was a direct response to reports that the two boys who committed the Columbine killings may have been seeking revenge for having been mistreated at school. School officials reasoned that if schools could be rid of bullies, they would be made safer for all students.

Opponents’ Concerns

Proponents of the anti-bullying bill proposed in Washington state say it was derailed by members of the state’s chapter of the Christian Coalition, who contended that anti-bullying policies in schools could violate the free-speech rights of students who expressed opposition to homosexuality.

“The Christian Coalition and others involving evangelical churches were the only ones that opposed it,” said Brian E. Smith, a spokesman for state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who helped to draft the bill. “In a nutshell, they were concerned that somehow it would bring up a discussion of homosexuality in the schools.

“We’ve said all along it has nothing to do with homosexuality,” Mr. Smith said. “It protects every kid—tall, skinny, gay.”

But Rick Forcier, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington, counters that members of his group worry that the anti- bullying measure is only the beginning.

“What we’re concerned about it is that some states will follow the pattern of California in which they begin to mandate the teaching of homosexuality in a positive light,” said Mr. Forcier, who testified against the proposed law. “We think the [anti-bullying] bills could lead in that direction.

“We’re speaking as a Christian organization making sure we maintain the right to express our viewpoints and not have it muzzled.”

Rep. Edward B. Murray, a Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said he believes the Christian Coalition attacked the bill in part because he is gay and was a sponsor of the measure.

“I’m sponsoring a bill that deals with school safety, and they think there’s some sort of hidden agenda here,” Mr. Murray said. “Suddenly, it becomes my agenda.”

He backed the bill, he said, because of calls he had received from students who stood out from their peers, either because of disabilities or physical differences or because they were lesbian or gay.

“They weren’t just being harassed,” he said. “They were being insulted and beat up. Not all of our school districts were dealing with this.”

Rep. Gigi Talcott, the Republican co-chairwoman of the House education committee, blocked the anti-bullying bill from coming up for a vote in April. She downplayed reports that she’d done so because of concerns over how the law would apply to homosexuality. She said she viewed the measure as unnecessary because schools could already put anti-bullying plans in place.

The Washington legislature has adjourned. But proponents of the anti- bullying measure said there is still a slim chance it would survive because the Senate plans to send the bill to the House one more time during a special session that ends May 24.

Implementation Challenges

Mark V. Joyce, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said the anti-bullying mandate in his state got bogged down in the implementation stage.

New Hampshire came out with a technical advisory that said schools had to report every incident of bullying, which school administrators found unrealistic, according to Mr. Joyce.

“It’s almost universal that people are concerned about safety,” he said. “But when we pass a piece of legislation, we have to think about how it will practically work in a school environment. If the solution is outside of reality, you’re going to build resistance.”

Nicholas Donahue, the New Hampshire education commissioner, acknowledged that the state has had some challenges in implementing the law. But he added that he believes it has spurred most school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies.

“We talk with superintendents and school board members,” Mr. Donahue said. “For the most part, what we’ve heard is that the law is cumbersome, that the technical advisory was good but raised some other questions, and ‘we’ve met the letter of the law, and our school board has adopted a policy.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Legislatures Take On Bullies With New Laws

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