It's no longer just parents and principals who are dealing with school bullies. State lawmakers are squaring off against juvenile behaviors such as taunting, teasing and threats once accepted as simply a part of growing up.
Seventeen states have anti-bullying laws on the books, mostly adopted in the wake of the April 20, 1999, fatal shooting spree by two students at Colorado's Columbine High School. But almost five years after Columbine, a flurry of interest this year in 16 state legislatures shows that it's an increasingly common remedy to use state law to try to curb bullying. Whether statutes are effective is still in question.
Eleven states considered anti-bullying proposals but failed to pass them this session. Measures are still alive in Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
"The two perpetrators at Columbine were the victims of bullies at that school, and that was why they decided to retaliate," said Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group made up of state education officials. "So people, probably in fear of having another Columbine, are trying to nip it in the bud by enacting these anti-bullying policies."
After a strong and highly public campaign by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, his state was one of the first to pass legislation in 2000. The law requires all schools in the state to adopt an anti-bullying policy, but leaves the specifics up to local schools. Surprisingly, although Colorado is famous because of Columbine, its anti-bullying law isn't considered the most comprehensive.
"The timing in Colorado was ripe to pass legislation," said Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which helps facilitate a statewide anti-bullying project.
Other states followed suit and some, such as New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut, have adopted laws that are more far-reaching than Colorado's. For example, a 2002 Connecticut law goes beyond simply requiring that schools put a bullying policy in their handbooks. It mandates that schools record incidents of bullying and make them available to the public upon request.
The Connecticut law has "really raised the consciousness, not only of the staff but also of parents and people with concerns around harassment," said Nancy Aleman, an education consultant for the Connecticut State Department of Education. Aleman said she has not received complaints from schools that the reporting requirement is burdensome, contrary to concerns raised by opponents of such reporting clauses in other states.
In the same vein, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, both Democrats, recommended legislation that would require schools in the Hawkeye State to adopt and annually review anti-bullying policies and also would establish a system to track and report bullying to the state Department of Education.
"We felt this was a very proactive way to deal with this in order to prevent bullying and harassment and also to know what's occurring and have a process for dealing with complaints," Pederson told Stateline.org.
The Iowa Senate is taking up an anti-bullying bill that differs from the Vilsack-Pederson proposal, in that it gives schools more control and flexibility to shape their policies.
The prevalence of bullying in schools both physical and emotional is widespread, experts said. Bullying has reached "epidemic proportions in American schools and communities," according to Women's Educational Media, a San Francisco-based group that produces films that advocate for social change. According to their Web site, 66 percent of youth are teased at least once a month and nearly one-third of youth are bullied at least once a month.
Bullying can be motivated by bias based on race or sexual orientation or by less tangible factors such as being perceived as stealing someone's boyfriend or girlfriend or being labeled a "nerd," "dork," or fat, said Finessa Ferrell, an NCSL research analyst.
Recent research shows a connection between bullying and violence. A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service that studied 10 students who committed school shootings found that bullying played a role in a majority of the incidents. And according to the Education Department, one in four children who act as bullies will have a criminal record by age 30.
Among bills that didn't pass this year was one sponsored by Indiana state Sen. Connie Sipes (D), a full-time elementary school principal. Her bill, approved 38-10 by the Indiana Senate, didn't get through the House of Representatives during the Hoosier state's short legislative session. She likely will introduce it again next year, according to her legislative assistant, Charlotte Lemieux.
Many challengers consider anti-bullying legislation unnecessary or question whether the legislature is the appropriate venue to deal with the issue. "There are still people who think that everyone gets bullied, it's a right of passage, that's just the way it is,' and they are hesitant to legislate that," Ferrell of NCSL said. But for the most part, "people are coming to see it as an issue they need to address," she said.
Some opponents, such as Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, contend that bullying policies should be left to local school districts. Trump said that state legislation is nothing more than political grandstanding and that the laws overemphasize one component of school safety. He also criticized anti-bullying proposals for requiring schools to develop new rules and programs without providing additional state funds.
"Legislators have clearly jumped on the anti-bully bandwagon, and I don't believe that unfunded legislative mandates are the most effective ways to make schools safe," Trump told Stateline.org.
Iowa's Pederson said she thinks it's necessary to legislate bullying because many schools don't deal with it effectively. "We know that some communities let this go," Pederson said, adding that bullying would have to rise to a criminal level before other state statutes apply. "We shouldn't wait for a crisis situation before we put protections in place," she said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently launched a multi-million-dollar awareness campaign called "Stop Bullying Now!" that's geared specifically at kids ages 9 to 13.