These are the faces of a crisis in the nation's schools.
They're bullies, or at least alleged bullies. They're charged in Massachusetts with bullying Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old student who hanged herself in January. They did it -- allegedly -- the new fashioned way: Away from school grounds. On Facebook.
A couple of state legislators say they intend to use the special session on flood relief to reintroduce a bill on bullying.
"This emergency is one of our own creation; we can respond," Sen. Scott Dibble said today. "We can change this. We can take those affirmative steps so that every kid who goes to school knows that they are valued, that they'll be safe, that they're loved, that they're going to get an equal shot at a good start in life."
The problem is that the bill doesn't tell schools how to "change this."
Here's what the bill, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed in 2009, says:
Subd. 2. Harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence policy. (a) Requires a school board to adopt a written policy, consistent with Minnesota's human rights law and this section, that prohibits harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence based on characteristics such as race, color, creed, national origin, gender, marital status, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, or physical characteristics, or associating with a person having any of these characteristics. Requires the policy to address all forms of harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, including electronic and Internet-based forms among other forms. Requires the policy to be posted on the district's Web site. Requires schools to develop a process for discussing the policy and to provide school employees training on responding to harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence.
The legislation is aimed at toughening anti-bullying legislation the Legislature passed in 2007, which also led to plenty of school districts scratching their heads wondering how?
Here's what I wrote (on the old Minnesota Fantasy Legislature site) at the time:
But that's not the part of the bill that caught my attention. It was this:
The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.
I watched the Senate Education Committee testimony on this a week or so ago and while there was some rumblings from the minority party about such things as how a school committee can possibly police the off-school-premises and off-school-hours activities of students, squirreled away in their rooms at home... banging away on the Internet, for the most part the response was "we'll let the school boards figure that out."
The biggest challenge facing anyone who wants to stop bullying (and that's mostly everyone except the bullies) is the technology that shields the bully from the long reach of those who can stop it. Bullying once happened only face-to-face, on school property. Those days are gone forever. There are also significant constitutional questions involved that the Legislature isn't addressing. Until the Legislature can figure that out, it's in a position to do little more than telling someone else to do something about it.
There's also another common theme in bullying incidents that aren't being addressed: Teachers who know about it and do nothing to stop it. That may be a matter for collective bargaining.
In the meantime, the torture continues.
Update 3:54 p.m. -- Colleague Tom Weber reminds me of this excellent discussion on the online aspect of bullying.
it's important for kids to learn that the government can't help them and they need to settle their own battles.
Obviously a school district can do little to stop harassment off school grounds and online, but when online actions cause the subject of the bullying to feel unwelcome at school, and the district is made aware of it, the school needs to have a policy in place to deal with it. When I was bullied throughout grades 6-10, (in the 1980s), my school district didn't do a damn thing about it. After the Columbine tragedy, schools were quick to pile up zero-tolerance policies for possessing weapons. And these rules resulted in cases of the expulsion of young grade schoolers with butter knives, if memory serves. How many national news stories resulted from these incidents following the Columbine tragedy (which itself was directly related to bullying)? It seemed really easy to make rules against the feared _responses_ to bullying. But now, since it involves sexual orientation issues, the rules are somehow hard to write. Somehow we ended up in the situation where we need to tolerate the actions of students (kids being kids) who make life hell for others, but there is zero tolerance for any retaliation. It would be easier to deal with outside of an election cycle.
//It seemed really easy to make rules against the feared _responses_ to bullying. But now, since it involves sexual orientation issues, the rules are somehow hard to write
I wrote the quoted paragraph above in 2007. They weren't easier to write then. They're not easier to write now. Which is why the Legislature isn't writing them but telling the school districts to write them.
You can't legislate decency. Or force individuals to recognize the value of other human beings if they choose not to. So no, I don't think government can "fix" the bullying problem. Government can send a strong signal that society repudiates bullying. To what degree a particular individual *cares* what society thinks is another thing.
But while schools and governments may not be able to stop bullying, I think communities should do their best nonetheless - through good old fashioned parenting and leadership by adults and older teens. Bullying is an issue that can and should be addressed by parents and families. The biggest problem is that there are plenty of adults who bully and harass - and if they're parents, it's unlikely they're going to take a stand when their children emulate them.
There's been an interesting discussion on bullying on Insight Now over the past few days, including a student's take on the successes he has seen in his school (see @brett_campbell on Oct 9)
As much as I support the bill, this special session is a ridiculous time to be pursuing it. Of course, I don't believe Senator Dibble really thinks there is a chance this will be heard, let alone passed, in the special session. It's a photo op, for a good cause, but grandstanding nonetheless. That annoys me when either side does it.
I do wish the bill was written with clear directions to school boards. But that takes the courage to make decisions that might leave you out of a job the next session. You might end up not getting the 100% score for a given lobby or action group. Too few politicians have the courage to risk that.
However, the rubber really hits the road at the school level. If the culture of the school allows bullying it's going to happen. The administration has to set the tone to the teachers who represent that throughout the building. State laws can try to mandate that, but they can't do it effectively.
Racism didn't end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it sent a powerful message throughout American society that overt racism would no longer be tolerated. The Safe Schools for All Bill wouldn't be necessary if our schools were creating harassment-free environments. Even if you think this bill would be difficult to implement, you can't deny that there are thousands of Minnesota kids who would feel relieved just to know that this tool is available to help them if they need it. Isn't it better to err on the side of compassion?
After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in January, 2010.
Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 ["Bullied to Death" show], “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities.
Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text and IM messages, Facebook entries and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.”
Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the law].
Respectfully, -Judge Tom.