Strict anti-bullying laws could actually make matters worse

The notion that bullying can be legislated away is fanciful at best
From the editors
Strict anti-bullying laws could actually make matters worse
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Schoolyard bullies have been around for as long as there’ve been school yards. Could a new law finally make them go away?

Ontario recently introduced legislation to rid schools of bullies. The bill mandates student groups to encourage tolerance, imposes reporting requirements and sets suspensions and expulsions for students caught bullying. Quebec has a similar law pending. Alberta is also contemplating legislative changes regarding bullying.

All this activity stems from genuine concern about the impact of bullying; several recent teenaged suicides have been blamed on physical or online bullying by peers. Such cases are undeniably heartbreaking and enraging. Given the depth of public response to these tragedies, and the zero-tolerance approach to crime favoured by many politicians, we’ll likely see more anti-bullying laws.

And yet there’s good reason to doubt a strict law-and-order approach will make this eternal torment go away. It could make it worse. It’s proper to want to eliminate bullying from schools, but the solution cannot be found in any legislature.

A decade-long anti-bullying crusade in the United States is instructive. Following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, an event blamed partly on the bullying of the two shooters, 48 states enacted strict anti-bully laws. Each mandates tough investigating, reporting and punishment procedures.

Despite such an aggressive approach, however, the problem has not disappeared. The U.S. Department of Justice warns the entire school system is suffering a “bullying pandemic.” Last March, President Barack Obama held an anti-bullying conference at the White House. An entire industry of anti-bullying consultants and charities has flowered. But after 13 years of attention and legislation, everyone seems to agree it’s getting worse. Something has gone very wrong.

New York-based school psychologist Israel Kalman is a gadfly to the current anti-bullying movement and its focus on a legalistic approach. “Anti-bullying laws can’t possibly work,” he warns in an interview. “Teaching that every incident of bullying is intolerable and requiring schools to investigate each alleged act simply increases the hostility and escalates the bullying,” he observes. “Let’s face it, children aren’t angels.”

An Educational Psychology study reveals a clear inverse relationship between tough anti-bullying procedures and non-physical bullying. “Schools with the most detailed and comprehensive anti-bullying policies had a higher incidence of relational bullying and victimization behaviour,” the authors reported. New laws may reduce obvious physical abuse at schools, but this in turn leads to a greater prevalence of covert, non-physical aggression, as witnessed by the sudden growth in cyberbullying.

Another problem lies in vague definitions. Quebec’s new bill states “bullying means any direct or indirect behaviour, comment, act or gesture, including through the use of social media, intended to injure, hurt, oppress, intimidate or ostracize.” Combining criminal assault, eye-rolling and rumour-spreading into one catch-all offence is hopelessly overbroad. Obviously any action that causes physical harm must be dealt with quickly and seriously. But existing laws cover this now. Plus, nearly every school already has a code of conduct mandating respectful student behaviour, and schools have the means to investigate and punish those who break it.

The proposed Ontario law further defines bullying as a “real or perceived power imbalance.” But power imbalances—in life, at work or school—are a fact of nature and can never be legislated away. This sort of sweeping categorization simply encourages over-reporting of bullying, often with unintended results. For example, a 2006 Texas survey found half of all elementary teachers should be considered bullies.

Finally, most bullies report being bullied themselves; establishing who is a victim and who deserves to be punished may be murkier than any law contemplates.

Given current laws already prohibit physical abuse, Kalman recommends tackling name-calling and other non-physical bullying with techniques borrowed from child psychology rather than law enforcement. He teaches kids to solve bully problems by themselves instead of relying on adult interventions. Such an educational approach seems a more appropriate use of school resources. As for cyberbullying, he notes this typically occurs outside school and should be considered the domain of parents, who have a responsibility to equip their children with necessary coping skills before allowing them unlimited access to the Internet.

No one can minimize the trauma that might cause a teen to take his or her own life. And almost everyone who’s attended school has a tale of their own playground nemesis. But any effort to reduce bullying must be grounded in reality and common sense, rather than the fanciful notion that it will go away if we just pass a new law.