07/02/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2013

The Three Words Missing From Many Anti-Bullying Policies

This month, state legislators and their staff across the country start putting pen to paper, drafting new legislation for the upcoming session. Many, no doubt, will be drafting new laws to combat bullying. Momentum to pass new, stronger anti-bullying laws across the country has skyrocketed in the past several years. According to one report from the U.S. Department of Education, from 1999 to 2010 there were more than 120 bills enacted at the state level for bullying. Although there are many issues to address about this continued legislating spree, I want to start with three simple, but critical, words often missing from such bills. Many laws included language highlighting the unique risk certain, "enumerated groups" may face. Yet, as this language is added to laws, it often fails to include clarifying language, such as, "Not Limited To."

Laws and policies are critical to, as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan once wrote, "send a message that all incidents of bullying must be addressed immediately and effectively, and that such behavior will not be tolerated." Enumeration is also critical to raise awareness about the risk faced by many groups. In fact, just released research shows that communities with enumerated policies have lower rates of suicide, depression, and drug use, particularly for LGBT students. Enumeration is good; Limiting bullying only to that of those groups named, however, is not.

As many enumerated policies are written, behavior can only be called "bullying" when it is directed at someone's characteristic (such as sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.) or their association with someone of a given characteristic listed. Such language is included, for example, in the Senate's version of the pending re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). But, what about bullying that is not, or is not easily attributed to, a listed characteristic?

Nowhere in the research definition of bullying does it include that the behavior must be based on a characteristic. Indeed, defining a behavior based on who is at risk for that behavior would be more than counter-intuitive. In addition, just because someone has a certain characteristic, does not mean the bullying they face is because of that characteristic. It is clear that if a student calls another a racial epithet or a derogatory homophobic slur, that bullying is probably because of a characteristic, but bullying is often much more nuanced than this scenario. If I tease someone, but make no reference to a protected characteristic, can I not easily say that it wasn't based on that characteristic?

In situations where there is no clear basis on a characteristic, but the target is in a group considered a minority, different, or other (e.g. being LGBT), do we then blame any bullying that child faces on that characteristic? Is that not the definition of "blaming the victim," especially for characteristics that cannot be changed? Just because I happen to be Jewish, brunette, and short and the main individual who bullied me was Catholic, blonde, and tall does not mean the bullying I faced as a child had anything to do with these differences in characteristics.

Enumerated policies that do not include the three critical words create an easy way to deny that an incident is bullying, thereby denying children's experiences and often failing to give them the help and support they need. The intention of anti-bullying laws and policies is to help make clear that bullying must be addressed. We cannot limit for whom those policies work. I am by no means suggesting we remove enumeration. Enumeration is very positive and reaffirming, but we must make clear that bullying extends well beyond behavior directed at those characteristics - bullying includes, but is not limited to, behavior based on enumerated categories.