THE BLOG
06/06/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Why Criminalizing Bullying Is the Wrong Approach

The concept of an "eye for an eye," as a form of justice, suggests that an aggressor deserves to be hurt just as much as the injured. This is why the calls for criminalizing bullying have only grown stronger in recent years. With the continued sensationalization of bullying-related suicides and homicides in the media, of course we want to blame and punish someone. But consider what Mahatma Gandhi once said -- "an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." We cannot solve bullying by punishing it away; we must work instead to restore relationships and environments, change attitudes and behaviors, and heal those harmed.

That is why I had to shake my head when I read this editorial by CNN legal analyst Mark O'Mara in which he accuses anyone against bullying criminalization laws as subscribing to the "sticks and stones" mentality and not truly understanding the hurt of bullying. Sorry, Mr. O'Mara, I definitely understand the hurt of bullying -- I was bullied severely during middle school to great detriment. Not only that, I have spent the last 10 years researching and advocating for better bullying prevention and intervention. I know that criminalizing bullying will only make things worse.

I've made this argument before in two previous blog posts about an ill-conceived plan to ticket parents for youth bullying and about how we need to shift the focus from punishing "bullies" to supporting those who are bullied, but it bears repeating. The Robert F. Kennedy Center's RFK Project SEATBELT was thrilled to join the National School Climate Center, Advocates for Children NY, Empire State Pride Agenda, and the Student Press Law Center in submitting an Amicus Brief for a pending case at the New York Court of Appeals that directly addresses the issue of criminalizing bullying. In addition to First Amendment issues, which I won't address here, there are three primary arguments as to why criminalization is a misdirection:

  1. The Definition of Bullying is Amorphous
  2. There is no consensus about what constitutes bullying and what does not. Though individuals might agree that bullying should involve an "imbalance of power" and should be repeated, or have the potential to be repeated, these components are inherently subjective. The concept of an "eye for an eye" posits that the "punishment must fit the crime." Certain incidents of bullying may not be seen as serious enough to warrant such punishment, but who is to make that call? Mr. O'Mara writes in his article that bullying... "is not name-calling," but unfortunately, depending on the circumstances, it often is and can have a significant effect on an individual. With such high stakes, either minor offenses will be caught up in the justice system or ignored and dismissed, neither an optimal solution.

  3. The Justice System Does Not Change Behavior or Address Underlying Issues

  4. Although there is no single reason youth bully, some youth who bully have underlying issues such as experiences with abuse, poor social skills, or being bullied themselves. Simply punishing these youth does not solve these issues and in fact can exacerbate them. Youth who enter the justice system are likely to be in and out of corrections for the rest of their lives. This is why many are so concerned about the "school-to-prison" pipeline that connects the use of exclusionary discipline such as suspension and expulsion to incarceration. Formally criminalizing bullying only makes the school-to-prison pipeline more direct. Further, discipline generally is disproportionally targeted at LGBT youth and youth of color. Especially with the amorphous nature of what bullying is, making bullying a crime will almost certainly further this disproportionality.

  5. Punishing "Bullies" Does Little to Help Those Bullied
  6. Though bullied youth, and those around them, may feel justice that their aggressor has been punished, the punishment in and of itself does little to rectify the situation. As I've written before, punishment alone cannot restore mental health and it cannot prevent future acts of bullying in the school. Despite any sort of consequence, most often the "bully" will return to the same environment with the bullied youth, having received no guidance or support to change their behavior or the context.

Instead of criminalizing bullying, we must work to prevent bullying before it starts by creating safe and supportive school climates and providing consequences that help restore and repair relationships and environments, preventing bullying from continuing. We must provide support to both those who bully and are bullied and work to ensure that all youth are able to learn and thrive. We must heed Gandhi's advice and not succumb to our desire for an "eye for an eye," since doing so will only make the bullying problem worse.

For more information on bullying, please visit www.projectseatbelt.org.