06/15/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Who's Bullying Who?

Like most five-year-olds, Mason was energetic, outgoing, and loved going to school. His mother rarely had to discipline him and his teachers never gave bad reports. That's why when Mason's mother learned that her son was being labeled a "bully" she was confused and concerned. Another student's parents called her to inform her that her Mason was indeed bullying their son, Norman, and others. Unsure of how to handle this accusation, Mason's mom turned to the school for help.

Coincidentally, at Mason's charter school, they had a set of rules that required kids to figure out their own disputes. It was understood that teachers and administrators did not get involved in students' disagreements. The school's philosophy was that kids will be kids, not all kids are going to get along and school administrators shouldn't get involved in these types of incidents. But outside of school, Mason was still being labeled a bully among the parents of the other students in his class. And, his mother was determined to get to the bottom of the situation -- with or without help from his school.

When it comes to dealing with bullying in today's classrooms, we are beginning to see some extreme and troubling trends. As if the news reports of elementary aged kids as young as six-years-old being arrested in handcuffs aren't enough, more and more schools like Mason's are quite simply ignoring bullying all together. Taking the sidelines in these controversial situations is not the standard by which our school teachers and administrators should be held. While we must be prepared to seriously tackle the issue of schoolyard bullying, we must also start to look at this through a different lens.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan takes the stance that every state should have effective bullying prevention efforts in place to protect children, and that while most states have enacted legislation around this issue -- more than 40 states have anti-bullying laws and, in recent years, over 100 bills have been enacted by state legislatures nationally -- a great deal of work remains to ensure that adults are doing everything possible to keep kids safe. He's right. But, folks, this is not a problem that cannot be fixed by legislation.

While legislators have good intentions, let's face it, they are not experts on how to best combat bullying. Just as parents, school psychologists, counselors or school administrators are not equipped to draft legislation, legislators are not immersed enough on this issue to develop forward thinking, multi-faceted, and research based policy that effectively gets to the heart of how to best deal with bullying in our schools. What's more, a legislator's tendency on issues like this is a quick, feel good, punitive fix-something approach that we just don't need.

Take for example, New Jersey where the State Legislature, in response to the suicide of an 18-year-old student, recently passed "The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights." Many believe that this law, regarded as the nation's toughest on these matters, actually adds layers of unnecessary paperwork inhibiting them in dealing with similar problems and in preventing them from occurring in the first place. While an admirable attempt at addressing this issue, a critical missing element is the implementation, evaluation and monitoring of practical school based bullying programs.

Similarly, those who, like the leaders at Mason's school, say that kids must learn to work it out for themselves, aren't reading the paper or watching the news to see just how out of hand bullying can get. Students on every end of the spectrum need the tools and resources to cope in school environments, and legislation and policy isn't the only answer.

There are many effective ways to address bullying -- intervention strategies, parental rights, teacher and staff training, innovative programs and integrated curriculum instruction, to name a few.

And there are schools with models we can follow.

How is it that schools like Philadelphia's Boys Latin, Connecticut's Jumoke Academy and the KIPP schools, all with a high population of kids with troubling backgrounds, do not have an issue with bullying? According to David Hardy, Founder of Boys Latin, kids are going to test adults and we must set the example. Bullying usually comes at the end of a problem that manifested much earlier. "We are aggressive about interceding at the very hint of a problem," Hardy says. Jumoke's leader, Michael Sharpe, insists on adherence to a zero tolerance policy against fighting and inappropriate physical behavior. According to Sharpe, "We set the tone and the kids know we are serious." So much so, he believes, that positive peer pressure among the students leads to an inherent form of self-policing.

For the rest of us, we have to step back, examine best practices, and talk with our kids so that we can come up with effective solutions for fixing this problem once and for all. Bullying disrupts both a student's ability to learn and a school's ability to educate its students in a safe, non-threatening environment. It is a ubiquitous problem that requires a targeted, research-based and multi-pronged approach. A safe and civil environment in school is vital for students to learn and achieve high academic standards.  And the emotional well being of our children, which greatly affects their future success, is just as important as academics.

Parents and other caregivers should provide the first line of defense by listening to their children, reinforcing positive behaviors and teaching them how to handle and respond to difficult situations.  School administrators must also play an active positive nurturing role by fostering safe and healthy schools environments; school counselors must address complex behavioral or developmental issues; and school leaders have to incorporate effective strategies and alternatives for dealing with these difficult situations so that students are better poised to make positive choices.

As for Mason, he was in fact bullying Norman. It took a few thoughtful conversations, intervention strategies and a variety of techniques to address the issue. No legislation was drafted, no one was arrested in the process and the parents involved didn't simply ignore the issue. And in the end Mason and Norman were able to move past it all and become good friends. The lesson to be learned is clear: responsible adults need to take charge and address bullying issues early and decisively without overcriminalizing the issue.