The Center for Law, Health and Society represents the culmination of research, educational and community outreach initiatives developed in the health law field at Georgia State University. For more information about the center, visit

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Simply punishing students for bullying will not address the problem

by Emily Suski, Georgia State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The spring legislative season is well underway, and, as has been the case for the last several years, a number of states are again considering and passing amendments to their anti-bullying laws.

This year, Florida and Kentucky, for example, saw amendments to their anti-bullying laws introduced in their general assemblies. Florida’s bill, which has been signed into law by Governor Rick Scott, requires schools to review and revise their anti-bullying policies at least every three years. And Kentucky’s bill has come up with a clear definition of bullying so schools better recognize bullying when it occurs.

These changes to anti-bullying laws are good first steps, but recognizing the problem is not sufficient. Schools also need to know what to do about it as well. States’ anti-bullying laws can and should guide and require schools to implement interventions that truly address the causes and effects of bullying.

My research on bullying has focused on anti-bullying laws – what they do, what they don’t do. The truth is these laws can both help and hurt students.

Simply punishing bullies does not work

All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have anti-bullying laws. However, bullying continues to be a widespread and pernicious problem.

Prohibiting and penalizing bullying does not work.
Terry Freedman, CC BY-NC-ND

The most recently published data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in 2011, 37 percent of sixth grade students reported experiencing some form of bullying.

Bullying can have significant and sometimes tragic effects. Bullying can lead to decreased academic performance, increased school dropout rates, increased depression and even suicide in some extreme cases.

Yet very few of the states’ anti-bullying laws effectively address the problem.

Indeed, the vast majority of these laws call for nothing more in response to bullying than punishment of the bully. Often, this means the bully will face suspension or expulsion from school.

For example, when Montana became the last state to pass its anti-bullying law last year, it simply prohibited bullying.

Montana’s law states,

Bullying of a student enrolled in a public K-12 school by another student or an employee is prohibited.

Idaho’s anti-bullying law goes further in its efforts to be punitive. The anti-bullying law is part of its criminal code. So the punishment for bullying in school means facing criminal penalties.

As a result of the lack of guidance or mandates that schools do more than simply punish the bullies, it is likely that schools are treating bullying in the same way as they treat most other serious student disciplinary problems – by suspending and expelling students.

Across the country, the number of suspensions has more than doubled in recent decades. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 3.3 million students were suspended and over 100,000 were expelled from school. While statistics do not disaggregate on the basis of bullying, they are indicative of schools’ overall response to serious student disciplinary problems, of which bullying is one.

Why doesn’t punishment work?

Punishing bullies may seem like the obvious, natural response to the problem. But it does not truly address it.

Social scientists who study bullying have found that “there is limited evidence that mandatory suspensions are effective at curbing aggressive or bullying behavior.”

Simply punishing students does not improve their behavior.
Working Word, CC BY-ND

While sending students home from school does communicate that the bullying behavior is unacceptable, it does little to teach them how to improve their behavior. When students are suspended or expelled from school, they typically sit home with nothing to do. This is unlikely to stop bullying.

Moreover, such studies also suggest that students who bully may have behavioral or emotional problems that require intervention in order to address the root cause of bullying.

If schools were to focus on effective early intervention for bullies instead of waiting to punish bullying behavior after the fact, it is likely they would see a decrease in bullying and suspensions and expulsions. In addition, it could prevent some tragic consequences of bullying.

Interventions that do help

Social science researchers have found that interventions that focus on building a broad range of social skills are effective at curbing bullying behavior.

One such program, known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education, has been found to be effective. Its effectiveness stems in part from its basic model, which allows for the use of multiple intervention models, ranging from school-wide training to individualized interventions, that can be integrated in the school setting.

States’ anti-bullying laws can draw on such social science research to call for schools to use interventions that do work, but very few of them actually provide support for such strategies. As a result, most schools are left to incorporate them only as far as their notoriously strapped budgets and resources allow.

There are, however, some notable exceptions.

For example, Florida’s new law mandates schools to address student bullying behavior at the same time as continuously reviewing and revising their policies with an eye toward improving responses as needed.

Nevada’s example

Nevada has gone a step further.

In 2015, Nevada revised its anti-bullying law to call for, among other things, hiring social workers to provide services to address the bullying problem and its effects. Even better, it funded the law.

Stopping bullying will involve a comprehensive program.
Ken Whytock, CC BY-NC

It allocated nearly US$16 million to support the hiring of the social workers devoted to working on bullying problems. These social workers work on building social skills and empathy development programs in schools.

Nevada passed the law due in no small part to the advocacy of Jason Lamberth, father of Hailee Lamberth, who was a student in the Nevada public schools. Hailee committed suicide in December 2013 as the result of bullying in school.

In her suicide note, Hailee asked that her school be informed of the reasons she committed suicide so that the school would prevent bullying from harming other students in the future.

Nevada had an anti-bullying law in place at the time of Hailee’s suicide that, much like the vast majority of states’ anti-bullying laws, called for schools to investigate and impose discipline for bullying. That law obviously did not help prevent Hailee’s bullying or her resulting death.

Jason Lamberth’s advocacy led Nevada to pass a law that holds the promise to do what Hailee asked schools to do: prevent and address the underlying causes of bullying.

Using punishment of the bullying as the primary or sole intervention for addressing bullying cannot address the complicated causes and effects of the problem.

As other states look to amend their laws, they should look at Nevada’s example and make their laws meaningful and not just well-intentioned. And they should not wait for another tragedy to make those changes.

Emily Suski is an assistant clinical professor at Georgia State University College of Law teaching family law and in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, part of the Health Law Partnership, a medical-legal partnership among law school, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She is also a member of the Center for Law, Health & Society. She has extensive experience advocating for children and adolescents with disabilities and has trained hundreds of medical professionals, lawyers, and others on education and disability law.



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Upcoming Event: Olmstead Goes to School: The Americans with Disabilities Act in the Special Education Setting

The Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University College of Law will be hosting a CLE event on November 4 at 11:45 am.

Georgia State University College of Law
85 Park Place, Room 341
Atlanta, GA 30303


Patrick T. Andriano, J.D.
Reed Smith

Jerri Katzerman
Director of Advocacy
Columbia Legal Services

Talley Wells
Disability Law Project Co-Director
Institute on Human Development and Disability
University of Georgia


Emily Suski
Assistant Clinical Professor
Georgia State University College of Law



The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., an Atlanta case that is often called the Brown v. Board of Education decision for people with disabilities. In Olmstead, the Court found that placing individuals in restrictive institutional settings when they could be served in integrated community-based settings with appropriate supports violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Justice is now relying on Olmstead in cases involving students with special needs, including students with mental and behavioral disabilities.

Our panelists will describe the historical background of the ADA and the current context of the Olmstead decision, which the department has made a priority. Then they will discuss the short- and long-term negative impacts of excluding and segregating students with special needs, and the challenges states face in serving these students and complying with the ADA.

This event is open to the public and lunch is provided. For more information, contact Stacie Kershner (J.D. ’08) at the Center for Law, Health & Society at 404-413-9088 or

For information on directions and parking, visit

Continuing Legal Education credit has been applied for from the State Bar of Georgia Commission on Continuing Lawyer Competency (cost is $5 per credit hour). To receive credit, bring your Georgia Bar number and sign in at the CLE table.

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New Blog Post by Prof. Emily Suski: “Segregation of Students with Behavioral Disabilities in Separate System Violates ADA”

Suski Head Shot July 2011On Wednesday, July 15, the United States Department of Justice issued a letter to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens finding that the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, the GNETS program, violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by unlawfully segregating students in school based on their disabilities. The Georgia Department of Audits wrote a scathing report about the GNETS program in 2010, and DOJ opened the investigation in 2011 in response to a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The GNETS program is a state-funded system of centers designed to provide behavioral and therapeutic support to students with behavior-related disabilities. Most GNETS programs operate in separate buildings, so students in the program are completely segregated from students without disabilities. DOJ found the GNETS programs provide unequal services to students, including that the facilities are not as well-maintained – in some cases far less well-maintained – as regular education settings, and that the curriculum and instruction is inferior. Some instruction is online. In addition, DOJ found that the state does not train regular education teachers in techniques for managing students with behavioral disabilities so that they can be taught in the regular education environment. DOJ also found that the state of Georgia actually incentivizes participation in the GNETS program by only providing support and therapeutic services to students with behavioral disabilities in the GNETS program and not in regular education settings.  DOJ concluded that these services, which include “individualized behavior intervention plans, crisis plans, mentoring, and other individualized supports,” could be provided in the regular education.

As a result, DOJ recommends that the state immediately take remedial measures. Included among the steps that DOJ indicated the state must take is ensuring that students with disabilities are educated in the most integrated setting.  To do this, the state needs to comprehensively evaluate each student in the GNETS program to determine if they can be educated in a regular education setting with supports and services. The state also needs to train teachers in regular education settings so they have the tools needed to work with students with behavioral disabilities. If Georgia does not take these and other steps identified by DOJ, they face a lawsuit by DOJ.

These findings probably come as no surprise to anyone with experience dealing with Georgia’s system of special education. Unfortunately, just as DOJ found, teachers in regular education settings are not trained to deal with students with behavioral problems, and parents find themselves fighting, often unsuccessfully, to get their children the services they need to keep them in the regular education setting. The threat of a lawsuit by DOJ serves as powerful incentive for the state to remedy these problems. The interest and well-being of the children with disabilities should too.

Emily Suski is an assistant clinical professor at Georgia State University College of Law teaching family law and in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, part of the Health Law Partnership, a medical-legal partnership among law school, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.She has extensive experience advocating for children and adolescents with disabilities and has trained hundreds of medical professionals, lawyers, and others on education and disability law.

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“How can legislatures truly address bullying in schools?” By Emily Suski

solo10138As 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.