10/20/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

How Do Anti-Bullying Laws Translate to School Policies? Some Insights From Washington, DC

For the last year and a half, I have worked closely with the DC Office of Human Rights to conduct an audit of school bullying prevention policies following the passage of Washington DC's Youth Bullying Prevention Act of 2012 (YBPA). DC's bullying prevention law is one of the most comprehensive in the country, covering not only schools, but all youth serving agencies that receive district funding.

The law requires many of the known best practices in bullying prevention policies, including enumeration without being limited, a thorough reporting procedure, and flexibility in its consequences approach. Additionally, unlike other laws, DC's required all agencies to submit their policies to ensure compliance by the start of the 2013/2014 school year. Did DC's public and charter schools adopt the requirements of the law in their bullying prevention policies? Ultimately, the majority of them did, but not without a lot of support, reminders, and technical assistance.

As my colleagues and I detail in our recent report, by the start of the 2014/2015 school year, DC Public Schools and a strong majority, approximately 70 percent, of DC's charter school providers have compliant anti-bullying policies. This high percentage of compliance was only achieved, however, after DC invested in strategic and targeted technical assistant to work with schools whose policies were not yet compliant (something, it should be noted, is highly unique and for which DC should be lauded).

On initial submission, only 17 of the 58 (29 percent) submitted policies were found to be compliant. Those 17 fully compliant policies all adopted the model policy provided by the Mayor's Bullying Prevention Task Force. The additional 26 compliant policies, including the District of Columbia Public Schools' policy, were revised and resubmitted following detailed compliance reports that we provided after each review. It should also be noted that although the law required policies to be submitted by mid-September, 2013, many policies were not submitted until nearly a year after this deadline, after several reminders that such a submission was required and their non-submittal status would be made public in our final report.

Policies under the YBPA are required to include seven overarching components (Scope of Policy, Definition, Code of Conduct, Reporting Procedures, Investigation Procedures, Appeals, and Prohibition of Retaliation) that were further broken into 43 subcomponents. Although each of the components was met by at least 45 percent of submitted policies on initial submission, patterns emerged among subcomponents that were missing. For instance, although the YBPA explicitly covers off-campus cyberbullying that significantly affects students' ability to participate in or benefit from schools' services, activities, and privileges, 26 percent of initially submitted policies restricted coverage to only on-campus cyberbullying behavior and an additional 9 percent did not cover cyberbullying at all. Similarly, despite debates over the definition of bullying, the YBPA provides a specific and detailed definition that all DC agencies must adopt. Just under half (43 percent) of initially submitted policies did not provide this definition, either by creating their own definition or by excluding certain categories from the required enumeration.

It was also clearly apparent in our review of the laws that the lawmakers' intent behind certain components did not always translate into compliant policies. For instance, the YBPA requires that agencies provide for flexibility in their policies around consequences, based on the nature of the incident, previous disciplinary history of the accused youth, and the developmental age of the youth involved. This language was probably included in an effort to dissuade the use of zero-tolerance type discipline, yet many schools provided the above language, yet suggested the available consequences were only in-school or out-of-school suspension or expulsion. As the law does not explicitly forbid these consequences, these policies are still compliant under the law.

So what do these findings from DC tell us about the broader landscape of anti-bullying laws? Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying laws, many of which continue to pass new legislation to update or expand the requirements for schools' anti-bullying policies, but few have any sort of formal procedure to audit schools' policies or provide the technical support and guidance we did in DC. We simply do not know, then, whether schools have actually adopted the policies prescribed by their respective states' laws. If we use DC as a model, however, the majority of policies are likely not compliant given the lack of support.

There are few systematic studies demonstrating whether or not anti-bullying laws and policies are effective at reducing bullying, but their use is highly encouraged by many bullying prevention researchers and advocates, especially in the context of other system-wide efforts. It is often assumed that by passing an anti-bullying law, such efforts will take place, but our findings suggest that simply having a law is likely not enough. Schools must be provided with the guidance and support to not only adopt a compliant policy, but extend beyond the letter of the law and change the climate of bullying in their schools.