Bullies Beware

Massachusetts just passed the country’s best anti-bullying law.

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon’s  series on cyberbullying. See Emily Bazelon’s special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

Phoebe Prince

 In 1983, three teenage boys in northern Norway committed suicide. Before their deaths, they’d been seriously bullied by other kids. The country’s Ministry of Education launched a national campaign against bullying in schools. The grandfather of bullying research, Dan Olweus, is Norwegian, and the campaign had his expertise behind it. The first prevention project involved 2,500 students from 42 schools, whom researchers followed for two and a half years. In the end, student and teacher reports of bullying fell by half. Kids were also stealing and fighting less, and students said their classes were more orderly and their relationships in school improved, according to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, now an international organization.

It’s a success story that Massachusetts is now hoping to replicate. In response to the suicides of two of its own kids—Phoebe Prince, 15, from South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, from Springfield—lawmakers unanimously passed a bullying prevention law on Thursday that is probably the most comprehensive one in the country. Like Norway once did, the state is turning itself into a testing ground for an ambitious program designed to change how kids treat each other. The timing is excellent. Schools across the country are trying to adapt their anti-bullying efforts to address the rise of online cruelty. Massachusetts will become a test case for the rest of the nation.

Here are the most important aspects of the Massachusetts bill: It requires teachers and other school staff to report bullying to the principal or another administrator picked to handle reports when they see or become aware of it. It mandates training for teachers and staff, every year, on prevention and intervention. It calls for instruction on heading off bullying for students in every grade level as part of the curriculum. These provisions complement one another; both adults and students have to know what they’re looking for.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not. More and more, bullying takes forms that are hard to spot. Forget the image of a group of thuggish boys beating up another boy after school. Today’s bullies are far more likely to whisper under their breath, or glare across the classroom, or make a kid unwelcome at a lunch table. Or to do their mischief via text message and Facebook.

The Massachusetts legislators tried to take this into account in establishing a legal definition for bullying. The sheer number of words they used demonstrates the challenge. Bullying is

the severe or repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another student that has the effect of: (i) causing physical or emotional harm to the other student or damage to the other student’s property; (ii) placing the other student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creating a hostile environment at school for the other student; (iv) infringing on the rights of the other student at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupting the education process or the orderly operation of a school.

OK, let’s take that piece by piece. “Electronic expression” refers to cyberbullying. The “severe or repeated” part comes from Olweus’ research—the idea is to distinguish bullying from regular fighting, as well as a one-off example of normal kid meanness. Teachers can’t report every push or harsh word. If that’s how the law were to be interpreted, it would be unworkable.

Olweus limits his definition of bullying to situations where there’s a power imbalance. This is missing from the definition in the Massachusetts legislation. Instead, lawmakers relied on the five effects of bullying to give schools guidance. The part about causing physical harm is relatively straightforward; emotional harm, of course, is more subjective but just as important. Including a student’s “reasonable fear of harm” is a way to get at threats as well as actual conduct. The other elements—creating a hostile environment, infringing on the rights of the student, and disrupting the education process—track court decisions on disciplining students for misbehavior that relates to speech. When bullying takes place in school, officials have a lot of leeway. When it takes place out of school—on a Facebook account accessed by a home computer, for example—they have less. The rule from the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, allows discipline of students for speech outside of school only if it causes a “material and substantial disruption” within school. The Massachusetts law is trying to reflect that.

At one point, before the law passed, some Republican lawmakers talked about requiring the schools to report every instance of bullying to the police. Wiser heads prevailed, and that overreliance on law enforcement isn’t in the text of the law that passed. Instead, there’s the smarter emphasis on training and education. “We need to train people to look for the behavioral and psychological signs,” says Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College.

Englander, who already conducts anti-bullying programs for teachers and students in the state, will be central to the next phase of Massachusetts’ effort. She is the first to say that success is all about implementation. How well do teachers, parents, and students understand what to look for, and how diligently will schools stick with their prevention efforts when there is no awful tragedy in the news to galvanize them? Dan Olweus calls his approach “whole school.” Massachusetts is trying to get whole schools to take on bullying in the whole state. What happens next will be a collection of small moments of learning, not the wrenching drama of a suicide and its aftermath. In some ways, what comes next is harder.

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