Notlong ago, NJ’s major newspaper, the Star-Ledger, published an editorial lamenting the problems with their state’s anti-bullying law, a law that legislators had promoted as the nation’s toughest, leading the public to believe it would make bullying a thing of the past.
Needing to do damage control, the NJ Department of Education went on the defensive. An editorial appearing in yesterday’s North Jersey paper, The Record, declared the law to be “highly effective,” based on statistics provided to them by the NJ Board of Education. The statistics show that the number of bullying investigations dropped by about half since the law was first enacted five years ago. The assumption is that the number of investigations represents the effectiveness of the law. The newspaper glowingly inform us,
The law’s initial effectiveness is plain to see. In the 2011-12 school year, the first year the law was in existence, there were 35,552 bullying investigations and 12,024 confirmed bullying cases. In the 2014-15 school year, those numbers dropped to 18,635 bullying investigations and 6,664 confirmed cases.
Sounds great, a 50 percent reduction in bullying investigations. But do you know what the newspaper failed to remind us? That the year the law was enacted, bullying investigations quadrupled! This means that after five years of implementation of the law, there are still twice as many investigations per year as the year before the law was passed. If a reduction in the number of investigations is the measure of the law’s effectiveness, then the problem has gotten substantially worse since passage of the law.
Also, please pay attention to the fact that only about one third of bullying complaints result in a determination of actual bullying. What’s the story with the the other two-thirds of complaints that are dropped as “not bullying”? Do they represent situations in which no one is suffering and there is no problem that deserves to be addressed?
Now, you may wonder why bullying complaints quadrupled in the first year of the law. It’s quite simple. It’s what happens when Apple advertises a new version of the iPhone. Initially, there are masses of people lining up to get the highly anticipated enhancement to their lives. After the first couple of days, the rush dies down and the number of customers drops. Furthermore, NJ worked hard to educate the population to stop making unwarranted bullying complaints so that they would stop being swamped with investigations. Interestingly, the ratio between bullying complaints and “confirmed” incidents of bullying seems to be an almost magic 3:1.
A university research study of anti-bullying laws provides a more sober picture. A news report on a recent study conducted by Columbia University reports:
[Students] who attended schools in states with anti-bullying legislation that included at least one of the DOE-recommended key components were 24 percent less likely to report that they’d been bullied in the last year, and 20 percent less likely to say they’d been cyberbullied.
It’s a far cry from a 50 percent reduction in complaints. And for laws that don’t have those “key components,” then the results must be even less glowing. If you are the parent of a bullied child and expect the law to put an end to your child’s suffering, you are almost certain to be disappointed.
What we are NOT being told
In their eagerness to herald the success of anti-bullying laws, and to justify their jobs and their social advocacy, activists and government education departments are reporting the number of bullying investigations. The assumption, of course, is that that is the measure of the law’s effectiveness.
But is it really? It is like saying the effectiveness of the “war against cancer” is the number of people who asked to be screened for cancer. Does the screening process make the cancer disappear? What if there is no effective cure for the cancer, or if the “cure” causes more harm than good, or if false positives result in people without cancer being treated for cancer? And what if the screening process itself is invasive, like bombarding the body with radiation so it can be viewed up on a monitor? It could make the cancer even worse.
What is the purpose of an anti-bullying law? Is it to investigate bullying complaints, or is it to stop children from being bullied? It’s the latter, of course. The only thing the number of bullying complaints can reflect with a fair amount of certainty is how well the law encourages people to file bullying complaints.
To assess the effectiveness of an anti-bullying law, the following are some of the questions that need to be answered:
- How effective is the bullying law in leading to a solution to the bullying problem? After all, the law is based on the recommendations of the world’s leading bullying experts, whose programs have been repeatedly shown, at best, to reduce bullying by only 20% and sometimes to cause an increase. What percentage of complaints, therefore, leads to a resolution of the bullying problem? What percentage of complaints fails to stop the bullying? What percentage of complaints leads to an intensification of the bullying problem? Think about it: If your colleague complains to Human Resources that you are harassing them, and then you get investigated, does that make you like your colleague better? Well, it’s no different with bullying complaints. Once the investigation process begins, the hostilities are likely to escalate, as each side tries to defend itself and blame the other.
- How does the bullying investigation affect the parents of the students involved? Does it make them like each other better, or do they get into a feud, blaming each other for their children’s problem?
- How does the bullying investigation affect the relationship between the students’ parents and the school? How many of them become angry with the school because of how it’s treating their child in the investigation process?
- What happens to the students who get labeled “bullies”? Does it lead to an improvement in their lives, or possibly a worsening?
- What happens to the two-thirds of complaints that the school administration determines not to be bullying? Do the problems that spurred the complaint disappear? Do they get resolved, or do they even become intensified?
- How many bullying lawsuits are conducted after the law is passed compared to the prior period?
- What is the financial cost of the law to the taxpayer? How many hours of staff time is required to investigate and prosecute each complaint, and how much does each hour cost on average? How many staff members are added to the state payroll to ensure compliance with the anti-bullying law? How much money is spent on lawyers in bullying lawsuits, and in payments to the winners?
- How much time of educators and counseling staff is diverted from their regular functions in order to deal with bullying complaints?
- Does the law discourage implementation of programs that may prove to be effective in stopping bullying, for instance, programs that focus on changing victims rather than bullies?
- Are there any negative side effects resulting from the anti-bullying education mandated by the law? For example: What happens to the minds of students when they are taught: to think of their fellow students as bullies, people who are evil and should not be tolerated?; that words can hurt them forever?; that they have nothing to do with the way other students treat them, and that their misery is the fault of others?; that they are helpless to deal with bullies on their own, but need everyone to help them?; that they must inform the authorities on their peers?
Without providing answers to questions like these, any report on the effectiveness of anti-bullying laws is meaningless. If we are concerned with children’s welfare, we must stop blindly accepting government agencies’ self-serving press releases and start demanding answers to the questions that truly matter.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems. This article has been reproduced with permission from his blog.