As legislatures begin to convene in the new year, undoubtedly some or many of them will turn their attention to anti-bullying legislation. The attention is much deserved as bullying is a scourge in multiple ways, including on the public’s health. It leaves children with emotional as well as physical scars and infamously and tragically has resulted in suicide. One aspect of the legislative focus on bullying that deserves more consideration, however, is the failure of the legislatures to take steps to address it meaningfully. Earlier this month, for example, Michigan passed legislation requiring schools to report on instances of cyberbullying. While the legislative action is a step in the right direction—certainly knowing about the scope of the problem is a necessary precursor to addressing it—this step, like most anti-bullying laws, does not do enough. What additional steps schools can be required to take, though, is, of course, the hard part.
Experts agree that addressing bullying takes more than reporting, and, importantly, more than discipline. Indeed, a focus on punitive school discipline in the form or suspensions and expulsions has been found to increase adverse consequences for students by increasing the school drop-out rate. Yet when anti-bullying laws require schools to do more than simply report on instances of bullying, many do just that: allow or require schools to punish, typically by way of suspension or expulsion, for bullying. Allowing or requiring schools to discipline for bullying is perhaps an easy way to address the problem of bullying, notwithstanding its ineffectiveness or counterproductive nature. Schools have long used suspensions and expulsions to address discipline problems. It is, therefore, a familiar approach with a structure in place for effecting it. However, if legislatures and schools really want to tackle the problem of bullying, they need to address the causes and effects of bullying. Research has shown that school-wide approaches to bullying, including creating a climate where reporting of bullying is encouraged, as well as graduated interventions such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), can reduce bullying and its consequences. Requiring schools to take these kinds of steps will serve as an effective use of legislative time, and they are likely to improve the lives and health of students.
Emily Suski is an assistant clinical professor with Georgia State University College of Law teaching family law and in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic.