The case for bullying legislation

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Kevin Epling talked about some of the ways bullying has changed in recent years. Photo by Hayley Beitman

 

 

By Tony Briscoe, Nicholas Roddy and Dmitri Barvinok
Staff writers

If lockers and linoleum tiles could talk, they would tell an unpleasant tale of students around the United States.

Bullying has become an increasingly popular topic to a major research group that indicates 28 percent of all students between 12 to 18 years old are victims of maltreatment.

More than 47 percent of bullied students have reported that they have been victimized specifically in school hallways and stairwells, according to the U.S Department of Education’s National Center for Education statistics.

Another nine percent of victims said they were bullied in the bathroom or locker room while another six percent are harassed on the school bus.

This comes as no surprise to high school teacher Carman Smith. An English teacher at Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills, Mich., Smith said he has to intervene in bullying altercations at least once a day.

“A lot of times it happens in between classes in the hallways, it happens in the locker rooms, it happens in common areas, before school, after schools, on the bus, at the bus stop…I would say most happen outside of the classroom.”

While many students reported being bullied in transition, 33 percent of victims identified the classroom as a bullying focal point.

Smith said that Groves teachers are more than capable of handling bullying in the classroom. The school, roughly 1,400 students, has anti-bullying policies as well as prevention programs such as peer mediation.

“It is a part of our house rules that we report any type of hazing or bullying or someone being treated unfairly,” said Smith. “Each individual case is handled separately, so the actual consequences depend on the situation.”

The district also has had seminars where teachers undergo training on how to resolve bullying situations.

One of the biggest problems the group is struggling to manage now is cyberbullying. According to a 2011 Pew Internet report, eight percent of students have been bullied online in the last 12 months. Smith, who’s been teaching since 2002, said bullying has become unmanageable problem because issues online now spill into the classroom.

Today, 82 percent of children have an online presence before they turn two, according to a recent study by AVG, an Internet security company, so maintaining a safe web of social networks is important.

“I think bullying has always been there, but it’s gotten worse because of cyberbullying,” said Smith. “It’s brought on a whole new phenomenon.  The access these kids have to the Web, and what they can do with the Web, it’s brought bullying to a whole new level.”

Since bullying has gone beyond the schoolyard, Smith says it’s up to parents to monitor their children’s activity. He encourages parents to create their own social media pages in order to supervise their kids.

“I think more parental control of these social media sites could help the problem. I have no business going on a student’s Facebook or Twitter page. There’s only so much I can do in the (school) hours.”

Michigan Sen. Rick Jones gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day to meet constituents in a coffee shop, but it was in his office where  he met with the mother of a cyber bullying victim. She showed him messages posted on her daughter’s Facebook profile, which made the afraid to go to school.

The messages were horrible, Jones said.

Jones is a sponsor of Matt’s Safe School Law.

With the recent passing of Matt’s Safe School Law in Michigan, bullying victims and parents can feel confident that trends in bullying will decrease in the state.

Matt’s Safe School Law was passed on December 6, 2011, and requires every school district in the state to draft an anti-bullying policy within the next six months. The policies will be submitted to the State Board of Education and reviewed.

The law came to fruition largely with the help of Matt’s father, Kevin Epling, who wanted to help prevent parents from suffering the same loss he suffered. In 2002, Matt took his own life after he was bullied by upperclassmen.

“One of the old adages was that bullies have low self-esteem,” said Epling, also co-director of Bully Police USA, an anti-bullying advocacy group. “What we’re finding more and more is that bullies have a very high self-esteem and a lot of the bullies tend to be the teacher’s pet. They’ll do everything the teacher says, so they’re not noticed as the bully, but they’ll turn around and do something to you behind their back.”

With the passing of the law, 48 states now have anti-bullying legislation, leaving South Dakota and Montana on the outside looking in. One of the reasons for the increased pressure on anti-bullying legislation is because the federal government and various political organizations are now labeling bullying as a crime.

For his next batch of legislation, Jones is looking at cyber-bullying legislation.

Potential legislation runs into First Amendment issues, he said, since freedom of speech permits people to express themselves online.

“I think it goes beyond freedom of speech,” Jones said, referring back to the hurtful Facebook messages.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, all 50 states have laws to combat cyberstalking, cyberharrasment, and cyberbullying, but not every state has protections against each. For example, Michigan has no explicit law against cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is defined as cyberharrasment that takes place in school or targets minors.

Patrick Corbett, a professor of criminal law at Cooley Law School, says that teens are often unaware that they’re breaking the law when they bully on Facebook.

In fact, when shown threatening text messages, many high school students are unfazed, Corbett said, believing that to be fairly normal communication.

For example, there are already laws that prohibit a person from posting messages, true or false, on social networks or through text messaging, if their intent is to harass another individual.

Another method of bullying in high schools is creating a fake Facebook account to post embarrassing information, photos or messages. In some states, this is identity theft, and if the postings cause two or more people to contact the victimized student, a second charge is added, one that is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison.

“I question whether or not new statutes are needed,” Corbett said.

Juvenile cases are not prosecuted very often, potentially leading the public to believe that these kinds of offenses go unpunished.

“Anecdotally, I think a lot of these are being handled in the school,” Corbett said.

If cyberstalking and online harassment incidents continue to rise, and if media coverage continues to cover resulting tragedies, prosecutors may begin bringing more and more juveniles to court, to set an example and dissuade other teens. In some places around the country, this has already begun.

Recent cases in Florida and Illinois have brought the issue to national attention by taking teenagers to court. In Florida, two teenagers were charged with aggravated stalking of a minor after creating a fake Facebook page for their victim and using it to post inappropriate comments and photos. Similarly, in Illinois, a mother sued after her son was identified as gay on fake Facebook profile.

On Aug. 12, 2010, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli spoke at the Department of Education’s Bullying Summit in Washington, D.C. He stressed how the prevention of bullying falls not only on the shoulders of teachers and administrators, but also law enforcement and the federal government. In his speech, he introduced a new anti-bullying initiative through the Department of Justice. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention “is developing a five-bulletin series on the topic of peer victimization in schools based on three studies funded by OJJDP and conducted by the National Center for School Engagement,” Perrelli said in his speech.

In the first bulletin of the series, released in December 2011, the authors pointed out that bullying is a complex social and emotional phenomenon that impacts victims in many ways. However, in the entire bulletin, there are no mention of any statistics on the prevalence of bullying in America.

One of the most thorough studies on the statistics of bullying in American schools was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009. The study surveyed more than 25 million students between the ages of 12 and 18 for the 2008-2009 school year. The study showed that over 7 million students, or 28 percent of those studied, were bullied at school. The most common form of bullying was being called names or insulted. Other forms of bullying involved physical harm, social exclusion, and destruction of property.

According to the OJJDP’s website, the most common school crime in America is theft. The OJJDP found that about 20% of students were involved in theft crimes.

The disparity between these two statistics shows the Department of Justice does not view bullying as a crime because, according to the Department, the most common school crime is theft. As the state governments are moving forward with anti-bullying policy, the federal government is lagging behind.

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