Can bullying be stopped?

These are the faces of a crisis in the nation’s schools.


They’re bullies, or at least alleged bullies. They’re charged in Massachusetts with bullying Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old student who hanged herself in January. They did it — allegedly — the new fashioned way: Away from school grounds. On Facebook.

A couple of state legislators say they intend to use the special session on flood relief to reintroduce a bill on bullying.

“This emergency is one of our own creation; we can respond,” Sen. Scott Dibble said today. “We can change this. We can take those affirmative steps so that every kid who goes to school knows that they are valued, that they’ll be safe, that they’re loved, that they’re going to get an equal shot at a good start in life.”

The problem is that the bill doesn’t tell schools how to “change this.”

Here’s what the bill, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed in 2009, says:

Subd. 2. Harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence policy. (a) Requires a school board to adopt a written policy, consistent with Minnesota’s human rights law and this section, that prohibits harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence based on characteristics such as race, color, creed, national origin, gender, marital status, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, or physical characteristics, or associating with a person having any of these characteristics. Requires the policy to address all forms of harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, including electronic and Internet-based forms among other forms. Requires the policy to be posted on the district’s Web site. Requires schools to develop a process for discussing the policy and to provide school employees training on responding to harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence.

The legislation is aimed at toughening anti-bullying legislation the Legislature passed in 2007, which also led to plenty of school districts scratching their heads wondering how?

Here’s what I wrote (on the old Minnesota Fantasy Legislature site) at the time:

But that’s not the part of the bill that caught my attention. It was this:

The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.

Come again?

I watched the Senate Education Committee testimony on this a week or so ago and while there was some rumblings from the minority party about such things as how a school committee can possibly police the off-school-premises and off-school-hours activities of students, squirreled away in their rooms at home… banging away on the Internet, for the most part the response was “we’ll let the school boards figure that out.”

The biggest challenge facing anyone who wants to stop bullying (and that’s mostly everyone except the bullies) is the technology that shields the bully from the long reach of those who can stop it. Bullying once happened only face-to-face, on school property. Those days are gone forever. There are also significant constitutional questions involved that the Legislature isn’t addressing. Until the Legislature can figure that out, it’s in a position to do little more than telling someone else to do something about it.

There’s also another common theme in bullying incidents that aren’t being addressed: Teachers who know about it and do nothing to stop it. That may be a matter for collective bargaining.

In the meantime, the torture continues.

Update 3:54 p.m. — Colleague Tom Weber reminds me of this excellent discussion on the online aspect of bullying.