The state of New Jersey began the school year proudly proclaiming the enactment of the toughest anti-bullying law of any state in the nation, making schools legally responsible for the behavior of their students toward one another.
The US Department of Education previously declared the failure of the nation’s anti-bullying efforts, labeled bullying an epidemic and called for exploration of new approaches to solving the bullying problem.
Nevertheless, like New Jersey, whenever a state discovers its anti-bullying laws are failing, it doesn’t re-evaluate its existing measures but merely toughens them. We need to consider whether intensifying a failing war is finally going to succeed in making our children safe from bullies.
In the previous century, the wisdom of the disastrous war against alcohol was questioned and Prohibition was finally repealed. For decades, people have questioned the wisdom of the disastrous war against drugs. Yet, after years of disastrous warfare against bullies, is the only possible conclusion that we need to step up the war?
Shouldn’t logical people consider the possibility that the escalating problem of bullying might be related to the escalating war against bullying?
Aristotle, one of the greatest logical thinkers in history, said, “One thing no state or government can do, no matter how good it is, is to make its citizens morally virtuous.” Have anti-bully laws refuted his logic? Is it now possible for government to create by force of law an environment in which everyone is always nice to each other?
If it can, why hasn’t it begun with the home, where the most frequent and serious bullying of all goes on, with 50 per cent of couples divorcing each other and siblings fighting daily in almost every family?
And why hasn’t government gotten rid of bullying within government?
The huge body of research on whole-school anti-bullying programs, the very approach that New Jersey is mandating, reveals that they rarely reduce bullying and often lead to an intensification of the problem.
Researchers have found that victims of bullying tend to have parents that overprotect them. Can we reduce the number of bullying victims by overprotecting students in school?
If schools should be sued for failing to stop students from bullying each other, shouldn’t parents be sued for failing to stop their children from bullying each other at home?
Both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have published detailed research-based opinion papers advising schools against using zero-tolerance discipline policies, explaining the myriad ways such policies cause more harm than good. If zero-tolerance discipline policies are wrong, can zero-tolerance for bullying be right?
Can we promote students’ self-confidence and self-reliance by teaching them that they are not capable of dealing with bullying by themselves but need to rely on everyone else to solve their problems for them?
If I report you to the authorities, you will despise me. Can schools make children get along better by encouraging them to tell on each other to the school authorities?
Parenting experts tell us that when we pay attention to negative behavior, we get more negative behavior. Can schools decrease bullying when they are mandated by law to pay attention to every act and complaint of bullying?
Unless we are willing to ask these questions, New Jersey and other states will be doomed to continue funding an intensifying anti-bully crusade while fighting a proportionately intensifying bullying problem. And it will be precluded from discovering an easy, inexpensive and effective solution.
Izzy Kalman is a school psychologist and director of Bullies2Buddies, a program that reduces bullying by teaching kids how to handle it on their own.