How to deal with bullying — prevention or penitentiary?
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Should bullying and cyberbullying be criminalized? Will grassroots anti-bullying programs prove effective in eliminating these behaviors?

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Bullying is still one of the most underreported problems in schools. Studies indicate that only 30 percent of victims tell supervisory adults about the abuse they endure. Over 160,000 children don’t go to school, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates, because they are afraid of being bullied. Recent studies, as reported on stopbullying.gov suggest that in the U.S. one out of every three students is bullied.

What will finally put an end to this disturbing problem affecting so many of our youth?  

John Stuart Mill effectively argued for the use of law to prevent harm to others. More recent scholars suggest that non-criminal interventions are preferable to criminal law if the same objective can be accomplished.

The United States does not have a federal law against bullying or cyberbullying, yet 49 states — all but Montana — have passed policies to try to deal with this health crisis harming so many young people.    

How much harm does bullying and cyberbullying cause?

Those who have been the unfortunate targets of physical bullying have endured broken bones, collapsed lungs and all kinds of scars. Recently 16-year old Amy Anita Joyner-Francis was killed in a bullying assault in a Delaware High School. Some bullying ends with even more lives lost as in the case of retaliatory school shootings. Michael Carneal 14-years old, killed three students and injured five in his Kentucky school to try to bully back those students who called him gay.

In cyberbullying the harm is often emotional and includes severe anxiety and depression, social isolation, and an array of lasting problems like suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosomatic issues, behavior difficulties, as well as alcohol and other substance abuse.

After both forms of bullying there have been widely reported suicides like that of Megan Meir who hung herself after enduring cyberbullying. Missouri’s “Megan’s Law” was implemented following the tragedy to criminalize harassment on the Internet.

These kinds of serious harms are distinct from temporary distress that leaves a person unchanged psychologically.  The latter may well be prevented with a powerful whole school anti-bullying program. The former may necessitate criminal action as the situation has already gotten out of hand.   

Nonetheless, in the 49 states where bullying laws are on the books, consequences and recommendations for prevention vary widely. In Colorado, for instance, cyberharassment and cyberstalking is a misdemeanor. In California, the same infractions are criminal offenses. In Louisiana, cyberbullying is criminalized and warrants fines or jail time.

Many states explicitly mandate that schools handle bullying, even if it done off school property, if the perpetrator and/or the target are members of their school community. For instance, New Jersey gives schools the ability to punish students who bully or cyberbully off-campus. Idaho gives schools permission to suspend students for bullying.

Michigan mandates that schools districts have an anti-bullying policy.  New York requires the Commissioner of Education to develop educational resources about cyberbullying for both students and parents. The New York Dignity for All Students Act aims to keep the public schools free of harassment and bullying and mandates that schools collect data on incidents of harassment.   

In New York City, 100 percent of the Central Park East II (PreK-7) teachers and students participate in monthly empathy-building trainings, as part of the school’s effort to create a safe, bully-free environment in compliance with The New York Dignity for All Students Act. My program, Creating Compassionate Communities (CCC) with support from Adelphi University’s Center for Health Innovation presented a special banner to Central Park East II to highlight the school’s commitment to a respectful and compassionate school.

This program also operates in Brooklyn New School (PreK-5) and Harvest Collegiate High School (9-12). The AU Center for Health Innovation hopes the program that increases caring relationships and decreases hurtful behaviors will become a national model.  Early data indicates that gossip and social exclusion has already begun to decrease while support for others and acts of kindness have increased.

There are many effective programs that have decreased bullying behaviors. The Norwegian Olweus program is a whole school approach that reduced bullying by 50 percent; it was translated into many languages and implemented across Europe. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and WannaBes, runs an effective anti-bullying project targeted for girls.  

These kinds of programs help prevent hurtful behaviors from festering and turning into more severe bullying and cyberbullying. Criminal law addresses the problem when schools do not have such prevention programs. Sadly the ramifications of doing nothing or doing the wrong thing may create the need for legal intervention.

Let’s try not to let it get to that point. There are many whole school approaches that help to create more caring relationships in schools. We need to comprehensively address temporary hurts and thereby prevent significant harm and the need for legal action in the first place.   

Jessie Klein is an Adelphi University Associate Professor in sociology/criminal justice and founder and director of Creating Compassionate Communities. Her book: The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools is published with NYU Press: 2012.


 

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