Cross Your Fingers

"Bullying" by KungFuPlum

Photo: “Bullying” by KungFuPlum

Imagine you are a fifth grade teacher at a public elementary school. So far, your day has been a relatively calm one; you artfully fielded some lingering questions about last week’s health lesson on puberty (No, Becca, tampons are NOT the things you put on your shoes when you mountain climb), remedied a situation involving a student’s left nostril and an eraser (No, Antoine, we can’t just wait for you to sneeze it out), and calmed a classroom full of panicked 10-year-olds after one of them accidentally stepped on the class chameleon (No, Michael, I don’t think the lizard’s head was that flat before).

Imagine you’ve made it to prep time. You log on to your email and discover you’ve received a message from the mother of one of your students. The message is tentative and anxious, but you detect undertones of anger and frustration. In her email, the mother says she believes her son is being bullied.

Oh no, you think, she used the B-word. bully2

The mother reports that her son has awoken with a stomachache every morning for the past month and saying he hates school, which is out of character for the typically happy, hard-working kid. She says she finally got him to admit that two of his classmates have been calling him cruel names and laughing at him during lunch and on the bus. The two have also convinced a bunch of their friends to ignore her son or tease him whenever teachers aren’t around. Her son, she says, is heartbroken and anxious, and you need to put a stop to the problem now.

Upon reading the email, your mind and heart shuffle through a catalog of reactions: Concern and compassion for a kind, bright kid who usually gets along with his classmates, despite a few awkward tendencies. Disappointment at the cruel behavior of two talented students who have never been in trouble at school before. Irritation at yourself for failing to pick up on your student’s suffering.

But the over-riding emotion is panic, because you know you don’t have time for this.

Suddenly, you are faced with the prospect of student interviews, plus lengthy email conversations and face-to-face meetings with three sets of parents and your principal. Your principal will launch an investigation, so you’d better have your paperwork in order. Action plans will be developed, discipline meted out, and all three students will need to be monitored for months to come.

You care about these kids, and you want to help them. You just don’t know where you’ll find the time. You also worry that nothing you do will actually solve the problem.

Bullying has developed into an issue that educators and parents can no longer ignore, thanks to the advent of social media and cyberbullying, reports of victimized teens committing suicide, and increased awareness of the long-term mental health impacts of relational aggression. Families are encouraged to talk to their children about bullying, check their kids’ social media activity regularly, and watch for changes in mood or behavior. Teachers are told to post rules about bullying, develop safety plans, and make time for prevention programs.

But parents and teachers are not alone, thanks to an increase in law enforcement’s involvement in the problem.

With all 50 states enacting anti-bullying laws (took you long enough, Montana), kids who bully now face more significant and long-lasting consequences than a note home, a few days suspension, or a session of peer mediation. Now they face potential arrest and criminal charges.

Back in 2010, for instance, six Massachusetts teenagers were arrested and charged with a variety of bullying-related offenses in connection with the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. In December 2014, eight students were arrested and charged after physically assaulting a 14-year-old outside their school in North Carolina. Last month, a high school student in California was arrested on suspicion of battery after punching another student with a visual impairment.

But are these arrests actually helping anyone? Do kids feel safer in school knowing bullies face potential legal consequences? Are teachers feeling any less pressure to solve the problem on their own?

First, it’s important to note that not all antibullying laws are created equal. Some states have followed the Department of Education recommendation to adopt specific policies for enforcing the law, while others have not. (Because why would you want to listen to people who know stuff when you can just make it up as you go?)

The good news is that the states with DOE-aligned antibullying laws have seen significant decreases in the rate of reported bullying (24% lower) and reported cyberbullying (20% lower) according to a study out of Columbia University.

The bad news is that we still have no idea whether the laws and policies actually caused the decrease in reported bullying—a host of other factors could be involved. In addition, critics of antibullying laws have raised concerns that legal punishments may be too harsh and could potentially lead to further isolation and additional antisocial behaviors; they also cite difficulties in defining what constitutes bullying behaviors.

Still, the results out of Columbia are positive, and the study’s authors believe that antibullying policies and laws are an important tool in reducing bullying behavior.

352px-Hands-Fingers-CrossedNow pretend you’re that fifth grade teacher again. The antibullying policies in your state did not prevent your student from being victimized–the problem has not gone away. You know you must continue to work with parents and colleagues, to focus on preventive strategies and vigilance. You commit to supporting the victims of bullying, while also supporting the perpetrators.

And you cross your fingers and hope that maybe, just maybe, the law will help you protect the next kid.

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