A Bully-Free World?


New Jersey’s new anti-bullying legislation is misguided and unrealistic, seeking to eliminate conflict rather than resolve it.

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This month, the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation is going into effect: New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. Unlike the mother who shared in Public Discourse her encounter with anti-bullying programs at her daughter’s school, New Jersey’s families may be in for an overhaul they can’t opt out of. All schools must adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies, increase staff training, and, when a bullying incident occurs, begin investigating within one day. And students can now anonymously report bullying incidents directly to the police. The executive director of the NJ Association of School Administrators, Richard G. Bozza, recently responded, “Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

According to a recent New York Times article, the law is an effort to get schools to “do more,” in response to such tragic incidents as the suicide of eighteen-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who was cyber-bullied for being gay. There’s something to that. Bullying has reached new heights of horror, especially with the prevalence of cell-phone and internet technology, which empowers bullies to overwhelm victims.

Even the New York Times coverage, however, conveyed significant doubts about the well-intended New Jersey legislation. But what the Times article did not mention is that New Jersey did not conceive this policy on its own; the push for such anti-bullying policy comes, in fact, straight from President Obama.

Last March, Obama held a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. As the White House blog promoted it, “Bullying is an issue that affects every young person in America, and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.” The president started the conference, and several White House and other government officials supervised breakout sessions. Obama explained that the goals of the conference were to “dispel the myth” that bullying is “an inevitable part of growing up” and to “prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all our children can feel safe [and] like they belong.”

It is difficult to reconcile the White House’s promotion with its goals. How can we deny that bullying is an “inevitable part about growing up” if it is, at the same time, “an issue that affects every young person in America”? As a participant in the conference, I soon found that its underlying philosophy was based not on logic but on emotivism.

“We all remember what it was like to see kids picked on,” the president continued. “With big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune. I didn’t emerge unscathed.” President Obama went on to sketch the size of the problem: “one third of middle- and high-school students report being bullied,” and three million report being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spat on. All the while, he exuded confidence that bullying-prevention policy can ensure that “no child is in that position in the first place.” One of the breakout sessions that followed was devoted to “establishing clear and consistent policies in schools . . . to establish a climate in which it is clear that no bullying, regardless of form, type, or severity will be tolerated in school.”

Clearly, the school environment is only the tip of the iceberg, because web technology now expands bullying potential beyond school facilities and hours of operation to virtually anywhere and anytime. That did not lessen the resolve of those at the conference, however, because, as Michelle Obama said that morning, “it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground, or even online.”

Why, one might ask, would the president lead a conference on preventing something like bullying, which is ultimately impossible to prevent? It could be, perhaps, because bullying is something that everyone agrees is wrong, and it is something that everyone can relate to, because everyone has been bullied at some point.

But sadly, bullying is like any unfortunate human conflict and will exist as long as humans do. This does not mean it is okay to bully; it means it is problematic to imagine that we can create a world in which conflict doesn’t exist. It is hard to imagine zero-tolerance bullying prevention without schools becoming mini-bureaucratic-police states—the likes of which only belong in films like Minority Report or Adjustment Bureau—where kids could be criminally charged for hurting each other’s feelings, “different” kids could be targeted as “likely to be bullied,” and so on. But that is exactly what this boils down to: a child’s version of hate crimes.

In reality, laws like New Jersey’s risk worsening the problems of bullying. There is reason to believe that hotlines where kids can anonymously text-message tips to incriminate bullies are yet another technology that kids will abuse for the purposes of bullying. Further, bullying prevention is arguably the wrong goal altogether. It would be better to focus on conflict resolution than on conflict prevention. Devoting all effort to preventing the inevitable is not only wasteful policy; it is a failure to do what actually might lessen the damage of real-life conflicts.

I left the conference thinking that educators would benefit from an approach with a different focus: helping victims to cope after bullying, and helping bullies to reconcile and socially recover. I soon learned that such a thought is not novel. As a Cleveland high-school teacher informed me, this idea—conflict resolution as a response to bullying—is so widespread in education that the Obama administration’s emphasis on prevention must be an intentional effort to go in the opposite direction. Educators like to use the conflict-resolution approach, he told me, because it minimizes the chance that formerly bullied children will become bullies themselves, a common vicious cycle that teachers know too well.

Since changing educators’ views won’t be easy, the government has created a new website, www.stopbullying.gov, to provide teachers with all the resources they need to “change the climate of the school and social norms with regard to bullying.” Materials include a significant focus on LGBT issues and suggestions for teachers to devote 20-30 minutes in their classrooms each week to the subject of bullying. Considering the many pressing challenges for public schools today—from proficiency in math and literacy to drugs and gang violence—it is a tough sell to ask teachers to devote extra time to teaching kids not to be mean.

Apparently, however, this is the only way to stomp out bullying for good. Forget owning up to our trespasses and forgiving those who trespass against us; Obama insists we focus instead on using the curriculum to create a world where no trespassing takes place. Such broad policies, which hold humans to unrealistic expectations, are recipe for disappointment. New Jersey’s law, in attempting to put these policies into practice, could, at least, send a clear message to other states about how not to solve the bullying problem.

Mary Rose Somarriba is chief operating officer of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, and managing editor of Altcatholicah.

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