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What's Wrong with the 'Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights'

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Today marks a new day for bullies in New Jersey, who have been perversely granted greater power under the "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights," a state law that took effect Sept. 1 criminalizing "bullying" and mandating that teachers and school administrators report all "bullies" to the police.

Under the new law, all public schools in New Jersey must develop comprehensive anti-bullying policies in accordance with 18 pages of "required components." Among these components, schools must appoint an anti-bullying specialist to investigate complaints, each district must have an anti-bullying coordinator who must adhere to strict deadlines for reporting complaints, and annual "school reports" of such incidents must be posted online. Teachers who are aware of conflicts with students -- including incidents that take place off school property and after school hours -- must report the incidents. Intervening to deal the with issue discreetly is prohibited, and students who bring any concern about bullying behavior to their teacher's attention put their own teachers at professional risk, because educators who fail to comply with the reporting requirements may lose their licenses.

There has been a storm of protest over the obvious flaws in such a law, such as removing parents and even the students themselves from resolving the conflicts, placing even greater burdens on our teachers and law enforcement and not providing them the resources to comply, criminalizing normal (albeit inappropriate and cruel) behavior among children, and giving ever more powers to the government. But there are also some very disturbing elements to the bill that may well empower bullies, and legitimate new forms of exclusion and social aggression by way of dehumanizing people with labels, and glossing varying forms of social aggression as a singular practice.

"The whole push is to incorporate the anti-bullying process into the culture," Lucila Hernandez, a school psychologist in New Jersey was quoted in The New York Times Aug. 31, 2011. "We're empowering children to use the term 'bullying' and to speak up for themselves and for others."

Yet the power children have been given is to send seemingly anonymous text messages, emails and tips to the police through a special CrimeStoppers hotline. What better tool to harass a target than to have a few students make "anonymous" reports accusing someone of "bullying"? Once the label has been made, the onus of proving innocence otherwise is on the one labeled "bully," and any resistance to group aggression can be perceived as "bullying," while the aggressors reach a "consensus" that their own aggression -- and shunning -- of the target is merely defensive behavior. More commonly, children can be easily pressured into viewing simple conflicts as bullying and making "anonymous" reports -- and once made, find it very difficult to rescind and settle the conflict informally, thereby increasing the chance that the original report will become increasingly embellished to justify having made it in the first place.

More importantly, to anyone who does make a legitimate report to the police in the belief that they are acting anonymously, they will be in for a surprise when they discover that once a conflict reaches the judicial system, whether through criminal or civil procedures, the laws of discovery kick in, compelling authorities to reveal the identities of all witnesses. Even when such identities are not known, the reports themselves will be turned over to the person charged with bullying, and the identities of participants can readily be determined -- or tragically mistaken. Such scenarios set the stage for escalating aggression through subsequent retaliation.

The situation is ripe for escalating the aggression against targeted individuals -- whose emotional vulnerability when targeted is easily misperceived, exploited and recast as hostile the more "investigations" ensue under this new law. Those who are charged with launching and conducting these investigations -- teachers, school administrators and social workers who are already overwhelmed at work -- may well resent being compelled to document and investigate such unsettling and murky conflicts. Consequently, they may focus their investigation on the most vulnerable person -- the "tattletale," the "whistleblower," the target whose "difference" marked them for social aggression or "bullying" in the first place.

Finally, the Bill also provides a prime opportunity for teachers and school administrators themselves to be labeled "soft on bullying" by aggressive co-workers and supervisors. Collective aggression in the workplace is called mobbing, and it is particularly rampant in professions where it is difficult to simply fire a person or they are unlikely to resign easily -- such as professions where there is a union, few professional opportunities elsewhere, or a tenure system, including teaching. In these cases, when a person in a position of leadership or influence targets someone for elimination, accusation of any nature is powerful and effective, regardless of the facts.

Aggressive co-workers or school administrators can use anti-bullying policies as a mechanism for excluding and eliminating another teacher by claiming they are soft on bullying. It is only a matter of time before any teacher who witnesses numerous acts of social aggression among students every day becomes vulnerable to being accused of not making a report when one was called for, of being tolerant of a student labeled a bully, of trying to resolve a social conflict rather than formalize it with a criminal complaint. In other words, bullying doesn't stop at graduation; it just becomes more sophisticated and damaging as it moves from the schoolyard to the workplace.

To those who would charge that I am soft on bullying myself, let me be clear. I well know the pain and torment that targets of bullying suffer. As a child I was tormented mercilessly, while teachers and administrators did nothing. Decades later, as a well-respected university professor I became the target of a particularly vicious mobbing launched by two administrators who adroitly encouraged a campaign of false rumors and damaging innuendos against me until my own career was irreparably damaged. And when my daughter was targeted for bullying at her new school, not only did I witness the devastating impact it had on her, but I saw how it transformed her from a joyful and popular girl who loved going to school to an anguished child who begged to stay home.

What marked this incident from my own experiences as a target was that her teachers and principal stepped in to nip the bullying in the bud, and did so in a manner that did not demonize the "bullies." Within days of this informal intervention -- which would be impossible under the New Jersey law -- not only did the bullying of my daughter stop and her love for school return, but the "bullies" became her well-liked classmates by year's end. Had the "bullies" -- who may have been targets of abuse in their own homes or been targets of school bullying themselves -- been criminalized, what might their futures have been? And what further aggression might my daughter have faced for objecting to the treatment?

Labeling, dehumanizing, and expelling people are forms of aggression and belong on a continuum of violence that grows ever greater the more they are sanctioned by authorities. Current anti-bullying rhetoric is among the most exclusionary, dehumanizing and aggressive trends developing in American society today and one I fear does more to embolden "bullying" than to remedy it. To better equip schools, parents, and children to address bullying behaviors, we might begin by analyzing bullying as a group phenomenon, and give greater power to all participants to defuse social conflicts informally, compassionately and independently. When it comes to dealing with "bullies," one size does not fit all.

Around the Web

Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot - NYTimes.com