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States Get Tough on Bullies

States and localities across the country are adopting tougher anti-bullying laws.

Group of bullies picking on a kid
mangee/Flickr CC
Earlier this fall, after a string of high-profile suicides committed by gay youth attracted significant media attention, talk turned to anti-gay bullying and the role schools play in preventing taunts and attacks on students based on their sexuality (or even their perceived sexuality). As a result, states across the country are now debating whether to pass anti-bullying legislation and, in some cases, to strengthen laws already on the books.

States began adopting anti-bullying laws in 1999; today 45 states have some sort of anti-bullying measure in place. In most cases, the legislation amounts to a requirement that school districts implement anti-bullying programs on the local level.

But those laws are mostly notable for what they don’t say, according to organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a group that advocates “healthy school climates” for gay students. The problem with most state anti-bullying laws, GLSEN says, is that they don’t specifically prohibit bullying of certain kinds of people. They don’t “enumerate” different categories -- such as race, gender and sexual orientation -- that make students targets of bullying.

That’s a huge problem, says GLSEN Policy Director Shawn Gaylord. “Our research shows pretty clearly that students in schools with non-enumerated policies feel almost no more protected than students in schools with no anti-bullying policy at all.”

Of the states with anti-bullying laws, only a fraction have policies that enumerate categories of victims -- this summer, New York became just the 10th state to pass an enumerated law.

The problem is that enumerated legislation can be much more difficult to pass. Conservative groups oppose the idea of offering “special” protection to certain groups, and some opponents say that enumerated policies regarding sexual orientation are a shrouded attempt to force a socially liberal viewpoint on schools.

That fact is a harsh reality for Michigan Rep. Pam Byrnes, who sponsored an anti-bullying law in the state. Michigan is currently one of only a few places -- including Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and the District of Columbia -- with no anti-bullying laws. Two years ago, Michigan debated a policy that explicitly prohibited bullying based on sexual orientation. But the enumeration was eventually stripped out and the bill died without ever being brought up for a vote.

Now Byrnes is championing a new bill -- one without any enumerated categories. “I prefer enumeration, personally, because you have more teeth in it,” she says. “But I also know it wouldn’t have a chance of passing.”

Meanwhile, city officials in Washington, D.C., are considering an enumerated policy for schools there, and some other states are looking at beefing up the laws they already have. In New Jersey, where a Rutgers University student committed suicide after allegedly being outed by a webcam placed by his roommate, legislators are considering augmenting the state’s anti-bullying law already in place. Among other things, the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights would step up enforcement efforts on local schools and require bullying-prevention training for educators, making it the toughest such policy in the nation.

Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Pennsylvania are also reportedly considering tougher anti-bullying laws. There’s also an enumerated federal Safe Schools Improvement Act before Congress, although its chances of passing dimmed with last month’s conservative sweep.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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