Kudos to Nick Gillespie and the Wall Street Journal for the balanced and helpful essay on the latest trend of combating bullying. Gillespie speaks as someone who survived a childhood filled with schoolyard taunts and who is raising two school-age boys he hopes will avoid the worst of bullying.
Gillespie also welcomes common sense strategies in the face of bullying: Talk to your friends, parents and teachers; recognize you're not the problem; don't be a silent witness to bullying, etc.
But he completely rejects the idea that America is in the midst of the bullying crisis we're told exists. He sees it as just the latest in a long line of hyperbolic alarms about childhood. Data doesn't support the idea that childhood is particularly brutal these days and the rising wave of laws and regulations are a mess, lumping together minor slights with major offenses.
Gillespie points out the silliness we discussed last week of banning words like "dinosaur" on tests in New York City and says it's not just city boys and girls who are being treated as delicate flowers but farm kids, too. Politicians are working on labor restrictions that would keep teenagers from working on farms. And all this while data suggest that kids are safer than they've been in decades:
But given today's rhetoric about bullying, you could be forgiven for thinking that kids today are not simply reading and watching grim, postapocalyptic fantasies like "The Hunger Games" but actually inhabiting such terrifying terrain, a world where "Lord of the Flies" meets "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior," presided over by Voldemort.
Love it. Gillespie also looks at New Jersey's "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" law that was proposed in response to the suicide of 18-year-old gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. It's one in a long line of bills moved along with popular support to make people feel better, rather than actually solve a problem.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called the Lautenberg-Holt proposal a threat to free speech because its "definition of harassment is vague, subjective and at odds with Supreme Court precedent." Should it become law, it might well empower colleges to stop some instances of bullying, but it would also cause many of them to be sued for repressing speech. In New Jersey, a school anti-bullying coordinator told the Star-Ledger that "The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" has "added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us" in dealing with problems. In surveying the effects of the law, the Star-Ledger reports that while it is "widely used and has helped some kids," it has imposed costs of up to $80,000 per school district for training alone and uses about 200 hours per month of staff time in each district, with some educators saying that the additional effort is taking staff "away from things such as substance-abuse prevention and college and career counseling."
Whenever I talk to people about bullying, I begin by asking them how they would define it. You would be surprised how frequently people don't discuss the topic with a working definition in their head. So I'm not surprised that legislation would move forward without defining bullying in an objective or clear manner. Obviously poorly written laws will lead to little more than litigation against schools.
When I think of bullying, I think of what my brother had to go through, having skipped multiple grades and being many years younger than some of his schoolmates. In junior high school, he endured weeks of threats with no help from school administrators whatsoever. What ended up happening is that my dad (the pastor) and the school janitor (who was our neighbor) taught him how to fight. He promptly took on four or so of the bullies at once by himself, defeated them all, and he was suspended for it. (It was worth it.)
Is there some middle ground between overreach we're seeing people clamor for now and the complete worthlessness of many school administrators in the face of bullying? I would love to see it.
Unfortunately, overreach seems to be winning the day. Gillespie notes that the stopbullying.gov website of the Health and Human Services defines bullying as "teasing," "name-calling," "taunting," "leaving someone out on purpose," "telling other children not to be friends with someone," "spreading rumors about someone," "hitting/kicking/pinching," "spitting" and "making mean or rude hand gestures." The most common bullying include being made fun of and being the subject of rumors. Way down on the list are children actually being harmed or threatened with harm. These two categories are not the same thing and it does a disservice to confuse them.
Gillespie ends by noting that our problem isn't a world filled with bullies but a world where kids are convinced they're powerless victims. That has to cause much more harm in the long run.