As attention on bullying – the old-fashioned playground kind, the new-fashioned cyber-kind or the equally insidious (and no doubt perennial) spousal, workplace, elderly, political and other varieties – seems to swirl around and around us like Fall leaves on a windy day, the calls to “end bullying” are reaching a frantic pitch. Naturally, some would argue, schools are the primary target. Bullying ground zero. With all those hours kids spend in our classrooms, surely our teachers and principals and administrators can be doing more to discourage, reduce or, what the heck, just end bullying.
Last week, some New Jersey lawmakers announced proposed new legislation that would become the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation. The “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” requires “training for nearly all school employees on how to spot, prevent and report acts of intimidation. Each district must form a ‘school safety team’ that reviews complaints, lead by a counselor designated as an ‘anti-bullying specialist.’…The measure (A3466) would also require school employees to report harassing actions they learn about that take place off school property — and those who don’t could face disciplinary action.”
It all sounds so sensible and sensitive and powerful. Tough talk designed to get results and whip this bullying monster once and for all.
The trouble is, as with most things in life, it’s not as easy, not as cut and dried and not as black and white as it seems. You see, on Monday you can be all about bullying, and the answers – in the form of laws and regulations and school polices – can seem so obvious. But then Tuesday rolls around and guess what Tuesday’s focus is – oh, a little concept our founding fathers called “freedom of speech.” Suddenly it’s hey, remember all those laws we came up with yesterday to solve the bullying “epidemic?” Did anybody run those through the freedom’o’speech detector? Yeah, didn’t think so. Houston, we have a problem.
Last week, not two hours after I read about New Jersey’s anti-bullying legislation, I read another article that was a stark counterpoint. A student In California had videotaped herself and some friends talking trash about another student, calling her a slut and other bullying-type things. They posted the video on YouTube. About 15 students watched the video, and it was brought to the attention of school officials, who suspended the “videographer” for two days. The suspended student claimed – successfully – that the suspension for out-of-school cyberbullying was a violation of her right to free speech. (Disclaimer: what this girl did was wrong, stupid, immature, mean and not nice. She deserved to be punished – by her parents, certainly. By her school, not sure.) The problem is: teenagers have freedom of speech, in school and out of school, and subsequent court decisions have set very clear reasons under which school officials can limit and/or punish that speech.
What are schools, teachers and administrators supposed to do, with all these conflicting laws and court cases? How are we going to decide (and who is going to decide), day to day, minute to minute, this speech is OK, that speech is mean, this speech is free, that speech is bullying? What is bullying's "yelling fire in a crowded theater" exemption from free speech?
And as distasteful as it is to bring money into the discussion, one has to ask: who's going to pay for all this? At the end of the day, every 15 minutes spent on anti-bullying activities, Open Circle, school safety team meetings and state bullying reports is 15 minutes not spent on math or reading, and it's 15 minutes that a teacher or administrator must be paid. I'm not saying any of these things, per se, isn't "worth it." But let's be realistic and understand what it is we're legislating.
This is all a roundabout way to get to my main point – I don’t think the laws and the courts are going to be able to fix this problem, folks, and we shouldn’t expect them to. Bullying, being “mean,” talking trash, whatever you want to call it...instead of focusing solely on controlling the behavior, or punishing the behavior, maybe we should focus more on where this behavior is coming from.
Which leads us to the Golden Rule. My question isn't “do they teach that in schools?” but rather, “doesn’t anybody teach that at home anymore?” We shouldn't need a law to enforce the Golden Rule.
Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org