A few months ago, I knocked back eight fingers of good scotch while writing quite possibly the most difficult post I have ever published. I described the hell that I live with every day, a perfect memory of having been bullied mercilessly as a kid. I remember all the things that everyone else gets to forget: being laughed at, spit on, beat up, and being used as fodder for everyone’s crude jokes. I didn’t mention the teachers who sometimes took part in the humiliation, but they certainly existed. I didn’t mention the difficult home life I had, either, that made it impossible to cope with everything. I originally wrote that post to make a point about a subject that continues to gain traction:
Despite what I’ve survived, I am completely against anti-bullying legislation.
Whenever some tragic event occurs, particularly a young teenager (or even younger) committing suicide because they’ve been bullied, everyone thinks that the only way to deal with it is to pass some kind of legislation to stop it from ever happening again. The anti-gun crowd (led mostly by the Brady Center Against Gun Violence) frequently quotes twisted statistics to prove that guns shouldn’t ever be in the hands of regular citizens; many would argue that making guns illegal will only make the problem worse by making the good guys in society sitting ducks for the ones who didn’t care to follow the law to begin with. When four people died in the space of three years (not exactly an extreme number in a nation of a few hundred million souls) after abusing ephedrine as a diet supplement, the FDA banned all OTC use of ephedrine.
Similarly, the parents of a handful of kids who have committed suicide after being bullied have attempted to convince their state legislatures that anti-bullying legislation is the best way to curb bullying in schools. I argue that it will only make things worse.
The law passed just one year ago in New Jersey actually makes it a crime for “innocent bystanders” to fail to report incidents of bullying to police whether on or off campus. I’m a highly-trained public safety professional. There are multiple mandatory reporting laws that apply to me, and there are times when even I have trouble sorting them out. How on Earth can the people of New Jersey expect children to understand that it’s a crime to fail to call the police when they see someone being bullied? There are kids who don’t realize that an incident may be bullying, so how can you hold them to that standard?
This year, Ohio passed a strong piece of anti-bullying legislation that goes so far as to label the types of bullying. In all the time I was bullied, I never held much difference between the guy hollering that idiotic question at me in the cafeteria (“are you a lesbian?”) day after day and the group of girls who made fun of me when I practiced the clarinet. It was all the same to me: other people being cruel because they wanted a laugh at my expense, something that was cheap. Why do we need laws to identify what kind of bullying a kid is experiencing? Could we make this just a little more complicated?
In July, just a few months ago, New York enacted the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). The NYSED’s web page says that DASA “seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.” The name of the bill and the description sound not only sanctimonious, but completely unfair.
You cannot ever promise a kid that they’ll never be bullied, taunted or harassed. It’s unfair because you can never stop other kids from exhibiting that kind of behavior. You’d first have to teach their parents how to raise those kids to respect other people. Considering how many child abuse cases I’ve seen while working in public safety, I’d wager that will be nigh impossible. Is it wrong to dismiss acts of bullying by simply saying “kids will be kids”? Yes, it is. It’s absolutely wrong. It is equally wrong to expect that kids are developed enough to understand advanced concepts such as “awareness and sensitivity in the relations of people.” I’ve met adults who don’t understand that kind of thing, and we want to pass laws that require teaching kids about it?
Pretty much all these laws do is make less sense of what bullying really is. One incident of a kid shoving another kid isn’t bullying, but it seems like these laws aim to teach that it is. The problem with it is that kids who haven’t developed enough mentally to understand advanced emotional concepts DO learn very quickly how to do the wrong thing in a way that won’t get them in trouble. It was the same problem I had when I was a kid. The bullies knew that if they left serious marks on me, taunted me in view of certain adults, or left some kind of trail, they were caught – they knew how to get around that. I knew that if I tattled they’d find a way to get revenge. Those people carry such self-taught lessons well into adulthood.
I think it’s great that people want to do something to address bullying. When your reaction to a sad story is, “we’ve gotta do something – quick, someone pass a law!”, you’re setting the whole thing up for failure. If you want to do something about bullying, then reform the education system first. Put serious emphasis on teachers who actually teach – take away the power of unions that protect teachers who don’t care. Stop the idea that harsh grading practices and criticism of any kind are unfair and actually focus on teaching the kids rather than helping them along. Stop zero-tolerance policies that hamstring kids who need to defend themselves from bullies.
Sometimes the simplest answers to our problems are the last ones we’d even consider because those solutions would make us uncomfortable. If we want to do something, we must first look at ourselves and see what we can change about us and the message that our actions send.