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Making School Safe for All Children

The Department of Health & Human Services defines bullying as “unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” 

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or non-verbal. It can include direct acts, such as insults or attacks, or it can be indirect, such as spreading malicious rumors or purposefully ostracizing someone. 

Whatever it’s form, the results of bullying can be devastating on its victims, and also harmful on the perpetrators. As detailed on our research page, victims of bullying suffer lower self-esteem,  and high rates of self-destructive behavior than those not reporting bullying. Long-term, bullying correlates with lower academic performance and significantly worse health outcomes at least into middle age. 

While the literature has recognized the harm bully causes for over a generation, progress on the issue has remained stubborn. Research shows that over the last few decades, rates of bullying have shown “a stunning lack of progress.” 

Bullying & Hazing: Programs


Unfortunately, there is no federal law banning bullying in school. While the Department of Education encourages school districts to make anti-bullying protocols and provides resources, ultimately, the federal government currently does not have the power to force schools to stop bullying. 

States across the country have passed a patch-work of anti-bullying measures. Your state’s laws can be viewed here. Unfortunately, the extent to which these measures vary wildly. Additionally, enforcement mechanisms for school districts or school officials that break these state anti-bullying laws tend to be weak or sometimes non-existent. 

Sometimes, behavior that many often consider “bullying” is actually illegal discrimination. If bullying is motivated at least in part by racial, ethnic, religious, gender/gender expression (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation, or disability, then it is also illegal discrimination. All discrimination is a form of bullying, though not all bullying is discrimination. 

Unfortunately, even the federal anti-discrimination laws are relatively weak in the K-12 setting. Surprisingly, adults often have more protection from discrimination from children. Although schools are entrusted with children, some of our most vulnerable members of society, they actually get significant protections that shield them for accountability. 

For example, it’s not enough that a school should have known for about illegal discrimination. Instead the child has to tell the school in pretty uncertain terms that they are the victim of some type of illegal discrimination. Simply saying another student is “bothering” them may not be enough. Second, not all adults in the school can accept these types of complaints. Only administrators with disciplinary authority can receive complaints of discrimination. If a student simply tells a teacher, that may not be enough to hold the school accountable. Then, even if the school did know about the harassment, they only have to be “deliberately indifferent.” In other words, even if they are negligent and make serious mistakes in handling the matter, schools escape accountability for discrimination and harrassement. 

All this notwithstanding, there are some federal remedies for victims of illegal discrimination in schools. Parents or students can file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They also have the right to sue the school district and school officials for anti-discrimination laws, though this path is neither quick, easy, or cheap. 

Many states and municipalities, such as New York City, have enacted stricter anti-discrimination laws that may afford students greater protection than federal laws. Local or state civil rights agencies may also help enforce these laws, though this too varies from state to state. 

Finally, many types of bullying are criminal offenses. The justice system sometimes gets involved in more serious types of cases, though the effectiveness of this intervention for both the bully and the victim varies wildly by jurisdiction. 

In some instances, school officials can also be prosecuted for failing to properly mishandle certain types of misconduct. For example, several principals in Fairfax County were recently criminally charged with mishandling child sex abuse. While sex abuse is typically considered outside the realm of bullying, it’s conceivable to see of situations were principals or administrators do face criminal liability for their actions or ommissions. In many states, school districts and school officials can also be sued for traditional offenses such as “negligence,” though many barriers exist against these lawsuits. 

Overall, while the literature is well-developed about the prevalence and impact of bullying, we need more research about what types of interventions work. We know that zero tolerance policies are not effective. On the other side of the spectrum, we know that ‘peer-mediations’ are not only ineffective in the bullying setting, but actually retraumatize victims. While evidence shows that early, proactive training and intervention, coupled with school culture of transparency and accountability significantly reduce rates of bullying, we need more research on this topic. 

Similarly, without coherent national guidelines, the quality of anti-bullying training, prevention, and intervention varies wildly from state to state. Absent federal intervention, many states and school districts need to dramatically improve their anti-bullying programs. Additionally, stronger state laws that hold school administrators accountable when they fail to respond reasonably to bullying, coupled with more enforcement from the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights would contribute to fostering a culture of accountability within our schools. 

Bullying & Hazing: Text
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