Bully Busters

Some places are getting tough on harassment in the schoolyard.
by | April 2001

In movies, bullies always get outsmarted in the end. In real life, though, the picked-upon often lack the resources to deal with constant taunting. Educators and school psychologists worry that nerds and other social misfits may ultimately exact revenge in ways that are excessively violent, as happened in Littleton, Jonesboro--and last month in San Diego County.

"You know the old saying, `Boys will be boys,'" says Rosemary McAuliffe, who chairs the Education Committee in the Washington State Senate. "Today, that's not acceptable."

In February, McAuliffe's committee approved legislation to make life tougher on bullies. The bill directs the state superintendent of schools to create a model policy to combat bullying and would require that schools throughout the state either adopt it or develop their own strategies to make it clear that harassment is no more acceptable on the schoolyard than it is in the workplace.

One concern is that, while shoving and other physical attacks are clearly off-limits, too many teachers and principals turn a deaf ear to ongoing verbal abuse. McAuliffe wants to clear up the confusion in children's minds fostered by mixed messages from these adults, some of whom advise standing up to harassment and others who recommend that students learn to live with it.

"Most schools and principals really still think that all bullying is is pulling hair and shaking somebody down for their lunch money," says Mary Harvey, project director for Safe Schools, Safe Students, which runs a peer hotline, 1-8NO-BULLIES. "Unfortunately, that's not all it is anymore."

In a separate action, Washington Governor Gary Locke has asked for $500,000 this year for anti-harassment training in the schools. Anti- bullying legislation is also moving this session in the Texas and New York legislatures.

Although no one speaks out in favor of bullying, of course, legislation to address such harassment hardly generates universal support. There is some concern that efforts to wipe out bullying are the ultimate expression of the overly zealous nanny state. Darcy Olsen, director of education and child policy for the libertarian Cato Institute, jokes that if it were possible to legislate behavior, schools would require that all kids have a best friend. "You could end up with what's happened with some of the other anti-violence rules, where a kid gets kicked out because he has a protractor and it's considered a weapon," she says.

Despite being a perennial part of the school landscape, bullying emerged as a political issue following the massacre at Columbine High School, which made school safety a national priority. As president of the National Association of Attorneys General last year, Washington's Christine Gregoire commissioned a study that found that young people are five times more likely to be victims of violent crime than those over age 35, and that 7 percent of all high school students annually are injured or threatened with a weapon on school property.

Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer, having found that seriously violent incidents at schools were usually preceded by years of low- level harassment, has created "civil rights teams" at more than 100 schools to engage in anti-hate education. In 1999, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that allows courts to force students who threaten or commit violence to attend prevention workshops.

The bill in Washington State, however, has foundered for four years because critics insist it will erode local control over schools. Some conservatives have also opposed the measure because it would give particular protection to gay and lesbian students. McAuliffe has deleted provisions that make reference to protecting specific groups from her latest bill.

"I'm sure kids will continue to walk down the halls and call each other terrible names," says Ed Murray, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Washington House, "but when it's constant and makes it impossible to learn, that's when this bill steps in."