The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Defining—and Dealing With—Bullying 

Bullying may be in the spotlight, but policy makers struggle to address it

tate Sen. Nicole LeFavour spent the last day of the 2010 legislative session pounding the marble, going from office to office to meet with members of the House and pleading for a hearing on SB 1105, her bill to address bullying in schools. Much to her dismay, it didn't happen.

The bill suffocated in a desk drawer, unheard.

It was an odd fate, considering the massive global backlash against bullying in the last year. It was an even odder fate for a bill that, in a year of bitter partisanship, had nearly unanimous support from both parties in committees and had sailed easily through Idaho's Senate in a 32-3 vote.

"There were a couple of people in the House who said they were seeing a lot of ghosts in the bill," said LeFavour. "Imagining it would cause things it would never cause. Someone said that saying a bad thing about a gay person might become a misdemeanor."

Though LeFavour said Rep. Bob Nonini wouldn't give a reason why the bill wasn't put on the calendar, she believes it was ultimately a victim of politics, buried under issues like federal health-care reform and open primaries.

"It had the votes to pass," said LeFavour. "I don't think you're going to find a person in there who's going to say there isn't a need for the bill."

That need is illustrated by a 2009 survey of Boise State freshman from Idaho high schools by the Safe Schools Coalition. The report, which measured the perceptions of LGBT harassment and discrimination, found that 87 percent of self-identified heterosexual students and 92 percent of self-identified LGBT students had witnessed bullying, 36 percent of heterosexual students and 25 percent of LGBT students witnessing it often or very often.

Aside from the immediate safety concerns, being bullied can cause emotional problems that last decades and affect everything from grades and graduation prospects to marital and job success.

A study published in the March 1998 edition of the medical journal Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found a significant connection between migraines in youth and the stress of being bullied. And that's nothing compared to the recent rash of high-profile suicides by teens bullied for their sexuality, or events like school shootings, which often have roots in bullying.

But the bill--which would have required schools to enact and enforce a bullying policy, keep and report data to the state and make a third bullying offense an infraction to be dealt with by a judge--wouldn't have stopped bullying anyhow.

At least Matt McCarter, program coordinator for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Coalition in the Idaho Department of Education, a supporter of the bill, didn't think so.

"The question isn't can we stop bullying," said McCarter. "The question is can we do better?" He thinks we can. But to do so, McCarter said the focus needs to be not only on retributive justice against bullies, or on comforting the afflicted, but on improving the overall school climate, something SB 1105 didn't directly address.

The two biggest changes the bill would have made would have been to ramp up penalties, making a third bullying offense a criminal infraction, and to mandate that schools collect data. That data could have been used to more effectively craft policies to address both immediate risks and issues of overall school climate.

"If we don't have clean, accurate, valid data, we don't even know where to point to find the problem," he said.

Though the bill wasn't enough, McCarter still saw it as a crucial first step and a giant coup for a state that doesn't mandate data be collected on hate crimes.

"When I wrote the bill, I had been at a number of conferences on bullying," said LeFavour. "The U.S. Department of Education had folks who would really talk about what was most effective. They said you need training for teachers, you need categories, and you need strong principles."

But she said two of those are things that can't be legislated in Idaho.

"Members of the Senate told me it would go nowhere if classes (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) were listed," said LeFavour.

This caveat should be no surprise considering Idaho's perennial failure to amend its human-rights statute to include sexual orientation. But when those statutes are taken off the table, not much is left legislatively except the criminal penalties, something LeFavour said she only put in as a compromise with Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. John Goedde, a Coeur d'Alene Republican.

Well, those and the "second amendment solutions" Blackfoot Republican Rep. Jim Marriott advocated for third-graders facing bullying when he tried to amend the bill to protect a student's right to self-defense without penalty at a meeting of the House Education Committee on March 22.

That proposal was hotly debated, but hit the wall when Boise Democrat Rep. Sue Chew, who had remained silent until that point in the meeting, shared a personal story of the time she brought a knife to her elementary school because of continual harassment for being Asian.

However, the training, principles and improved school climates that McCarter and LeFavour talk about to address bullying aren't totally absent in Idaho. They're just not universal or mandated at a state level, meaning it's a combination of the luck of the draw and the amount of resources a district has available that determines the safety and climate of any given school.

And nowhere is that divide more clear than in the state's largest school district--Meridian.

A plaque hangs on the wall of Judy Herman's office at Andrus Elementary proclaiming her Counselor of the Year in the Meridian School District for the 1999-2000 school year.

"Strangely enough, I hated school as a kid," said Herman. "But I've been working in one for over 18 years now."

Herman said the massacre at Columbine High School changed her.

"I was appalled that something like that could happen in a public school," she said. "So I started to research bullies, because those boys had been bullied."

But what Herman discovered was that there wasn't much on the subject. Even the academic data seemed to stick to the age-old paradigm that bullying was just a part of growing up. After reading several bad books and discarding bad course materials, Herman decided to create her own program: Bullyproofing.

Starting in the third grade, Herman visits classrooms for an hour every month to give kids a set of tools they can use to identify and effectively combat bully behavior.

For example: "If a kid calls you a pickleface, you can say, 'Hey, thanks for noticing. Am I a sweet pickle or a sour pickle?" Herman said. She also acknowledges taunts have changed drastically since her school days.

Much of the work she does with third-graders focuses on providing a clear understanding of what bullying is, especially what distinguishes it from teasing.

Herman teaches that bullying is one-sided, on purpose, hurtful and repeated. She also distinguishes four different kinds of bullying: verbal (insults and threats), physical (attacks and intimidation), emotional, relational or social (isolation, gossip and "mean girls"), and cyberbullying.

"I can always identify the bullies in a class when I talk about social bullying," Herman said. "They're the ones the other kids eye nervously."

The day Boise Weekly visited Charla Moran's third-grade class, students' hands shot up when Herman asked them a variety of questions about bullying. They quickly identified the different kinds of bullying Herman has classified and eagerly shared examples gleaned from the playground.

One of them delicately cited the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.

"Bystanders are victims, too," another said of playground brawls. "They're only cheering so they don't get hurt, too."

The kids were also very clear on the difference between reporting bullying and tattling, and that tattling was frowned upon and could potentially be harassment.

Herman specifically targets third-graders with these lessons because the majority of bullying happens in fourth to eighth grades. In the fourth grade, Herman introduces concepts of conflict resolution, and in the fifth grade, there is a special course on cyberbullying.

After reviewing and discussing the material, Herman showed a short Bullyblockers video from education publisher Pacific Northwest Publishing demonstrating problem-solving strategies with stick figures.

More than just offering strategies to help those being bullied to identify and cope with harassment, Herman said she's also working to educate bullies so that they are aware there will be repercussions.

"This way, they know we're on to them," said Herman.

Though she had to create the bulk of it from scratch, Herman based Bullyproofing off the work of Norwegian researcher Dr. Dan Olweus, who at the Norwegian Ministry of Education's request, developed one of the world's first anti-bullying program after a rash of adolescent suicides in 1983.

Olweus' data found that more than 20 percent of students were victims of bullying and 19 percent reported having been a bully "sometimes" or more often. But an analysis of 2,500 students enrolled in the Olweus program over two-and-a-half years showed reductions of 50 percent or more in reports of bullying, as well as drops in fighting, theft and vandalism, and large improvements in overall school climate.

Herman found similar results in data she kept for grant applications. And, anecdotally, she said the staff from the middle schools Andrus feeds into tell her they can always tell Andrus students because they're so well-educated about bullying.

But that's not to say students at the other 48 schools in the Meridian School District are entirely without. Parts of Herman's curriculum are standardized throughout the district. Students learn about what makes one a bully or a bystander, what makes them a target and what kids should do differently if they find themselves in those roles. What sets her program apart is the volume. Most students only get three half-hour lessons a year in the first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades, compared to Herman's monthly classroom visits.

"We have more and more requirements in reading, math, social studies. You have to then find time in the academic day to teach those lessons," said Jeanne Buschine, coordinator of counseling services for the Meridian School District.

Buschine said they try to find ways to wrap such lessons into other curricula, like using books read in English classes to broach the subject, but that it becomes a complex issue of timing.

"It's hard to squeeze in social, emotional lessons in an academically challenging, rigorous curriculum," she said.

But Buschine said what Herman is doing differently is taking that basic platform and going beyond just what's required.

"I have no requirement in my job to do this," said Herman. "But it's so effective, and it cuts down on our discipline referrals. Instead of putting out a fire while it's happening, we're going in and doing prevention."

Buschine said expanding the district's program to be more like Herman's would be awesome.

"But realistically, I don't know that with budget and staffing cuts, we'll be able to increase anything next year," she said. "I don't even know that we'll have the money for new curriculum."

"We don't have a lot of bullying here," said Herman. "It's a peaceful little place. Prevention is everything. And there's so many ways to do it. It's easy."

In fact, Herman said her biggest problem isn't the kids; it's the adults who repeat the time-failed advice of their parents to either ignore the bully or fight back.

"In today's world, when you ignore a bully, they may go home and get a gun or a knife," said Herman. As for fighting back: "What are you going to do when your kid is suspended?" said Herman.

That's why Herman, like McCarter, stresses that staff and adults have to be trained as well. If they're not all on the same page, if rules or principles are enforced in one classroom but not another, then there is no chance of accomplishing anything.

That's why she said the Legislature's failed approach--criminalizing bullying--wouldn't have been effective without a program like hers to work in conjunction.

"How can it?" Herman asks. "It's like saying speeding is an offense but not setting a speed limit."

But the lack of a mandate for anti-bullying programs in the failed legislation is where things start to get murky. Despite the proven success of programs like those of Olweus and Herman, not everyone agrees they're a good idea.

Elizabeth Swanson of the Protect Kids Foundation told the Christian podcast Wallbuilders Live that bullying is a problem fabricated by those seeking to gain power, and that anti-bully programs are attempts to "homosexualize their children."

"For the first time in our history, America is faced with a powerful movement that defines its alleged 'rights' in terms of the deprivation of the fundamental rights of others," she said. "As a result, the homosexual movement is depriving other Americans of civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights."

Articles on the Protect Kids Foundation's website also decry the federal school safety czar's safe and drug-free schools program as a "homo-genda" that will open a door to more "fascist" and "pro-homosexual" indoctrination.

But it's fair to say that this is a fringe position, quite possibly not even a legitimate one to consider within a society founded on the ideals of universal protection of human rights. But fringe or not, that sort of advocacy has the deep pockets of church funding and a worldwide audience through the Internet.

But it's not just the religious right that has doubts about anti-bullying programs.

Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, feels that bully curriculums don't differentiate between bullying and harassment, and that mislabeling disregards and undermines legal rights of students under Title IX, the part of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits gender discrimination in education.

She believes that labeling acts as bullying can even be deliberate attempts by schools to avoid their legal responsibilities.

"All the conversations we've been having about bullying for the last 10 years are setting us back on gender-based violence and sexual harassment," Miller told hundreds of teachers at the Real Teens Real Pressures conference on April 20.

"Bullying is something people are able to talk about, but sexual harassment, they're not," Miller said.

To address this, and the issue as a whole, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act of 2010--a law modeled after Title IX--to Congress in February 2010. The act would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. Like Idaho's bill, the act didn't get out of committee either. But with a base of support and a lot of momentum behind the issue, it's likely we haven't seen the last of these federal efforts.

Despite seemingly strong bipartisan support, and the specter of potential action by the federal government, there are foes of anti-bullying programs in the state Legislature as well.

"If I remember the bill correctly, the back part of the bill requires data collection," said Sen. Dean Mortimer, an Idaho Falls Republican and one of the three senators who voted against SB 1105. He added that he wasn't as opposed to schools collecting data as much as he was opposed to them having to report that data to the state because he felt it burdened the schools with paperwork.

"With what I remember, the current statute seems sufficient," Mortimer said.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, a Cottonwood Republican, another who voted against the bill, also felt existing rules are sufficient.

"The school already has rules that the superintendents should be following to deal with the matter," Nuxoll said. Asked why there was still a problem if the existing rules were sufficient, Nuxoll said she didn't know why, only that legislation wouldn't help.

"I just don't think it needs to go that far, to the law. It should be done between the parents and the school. I think we have the stuff in place to make it happen, it just needs to happen," she said.

She then suggested that parents who are having trouble with bullying watch the made-for-TNT movie, Gifted Hands, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

"I don't buy it," said Dan Savage, a syndicated columnist and author. "State legislators live to impose paperwork. It's really a desire to ignore the problem. If there's data, then there's evidence. And then they would have to do something that would run contrary to the push by social conservatives to deny the existence of LGBT kids."

After a rash of high-profile suicides by teens, bullied for being gay, Savage founded the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube channel in which gay and formerly bullied adults offer solace to tormented youth through personal stories. The channel currently features more than 10,000 videos that have been viewed nearly 1.4 million times. There are even videos from high-profile figures like President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"The culture used to offer this deal to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people: You're ours to torture until you're 18," Savage wrote in The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly of which he is editorial director. "You will be bullied and tormented at school, at home, at church--until you're 18. Then you can do what you want. You can come out, you can move away and, maybe, if the damage we've done isn't too severe, you can recover and build a life for yourself.

"There's just one thing you can't do after you turn 18: You can't talk to the kids we're still torturing, the LGBT teenagers being assaulted emotionally, physically and spiritually in the same cities, schools and churches you escaped from. And if you do attempt to talk to the kids we're still torturing, we'll impugn your motives, we'll accuse you of being a pedophile or pederast, we'll claim you're trying to recruit children into the gay lifestyle. That was the old order, and it fell apart when the It Gets Better Project went viral."

While LGBT kids are targeted for bullying at much higher rates, Savage said what really sets them apart is that there is no one for them to turn to. Racial minorities most commonly go home to parents who have faced similar issues, but LGBT kids most commonly go home to straight parents, who may be living in forceful, even violent denial.

But Savage is realistic. He doesn't think the It Gets Better Project has any chance of stopping bullying.

"The point of the project is to give despairing LGBT kids hope," he said.

And hope is certainly something they're in need of.

After his jaw was broken by a bully and the school refused to act, Jerome resident Nichole Harris brought her nephew Devante to a meeting of the House Education Committee to plead for help.

Legislators asked what would help and he put it plainly.

"I would like you to pass this bill so I can go to school and feel safe instead of worrying that my jaw might get broken again."

Legislators praised the boy's bravery and moved the bill through committee. But despite their stated intent to help, the bill was never even brought to the floor.

And potentially more damaging, education funding as a whole was gutted in the 2010 session, meaning the existing programs to improve school climate must now get by with even less.

According to McCarter, the state's school safety expert, those programs are what really count.

He said that to get serious about the issue, three things need to happen.

First, behavior expectations must be transparent and overt. He offered examples of schools that paint murals in common areas outlining basic expectations like safety and courtesy.

Second, teachers must be held to the same standards.

"Bullying is often kids imitating adult social behavior," McCarter said. Though it seems like this second requirement should be a given, the subtleties can be trickier than one might think.

The Safe Schools Coalition survey found 58 percent of heterosexual students and 48 percent of LGBT students reported hearing homophobic remarks often or very often from other students. It also found that 13 percent of heterosexual students and 17 percent of LGBT students heard them from teachers or staff.

Third, those policies must be enforced consistently.

"Kids have a keen sense of justice," said McCarter. "They know when someone gets a pass instead of getting busted."

McCarter said that selective and subjective enforcement is poison to any attempts to address the issue of bullying. Unfortunately it's also been standard operating procedure to address bullying for all of human history. It's punished by some authority figures, encouraged by others, and often who it is doing the bullying can be the deciding factor about whether there are repercussions.

Though it failed, it should be pointed out that SB 1105 would only have addressed one of the three issues, the consistent enforcement, by changing language in the existing laws from "a student who violates any provision of this section may be guilty of an infraction" to "shall be guilty of an infraction."

That line, the one stipulating consistent enforcement, was the major bone of contention, with nearly one-third of the representatives present at the March 22 meeting of the House Education Committee speaking against it.

And as Sen. Steve Vick, a Dalton Gardens Republican and the third no vote in the Senate, put it: "I had two concerns with the legislation. It was more state mandates on local school districts and we are trying to legislate what should be common sense."

Of course, what constitutes common sense varies from person to person.

"What characterizes this issue best isn't what's said, but what's left unsaid," McCarter said.

And what appears to be unsaid is while the wolves are busy roaming the schoolyard, the chickens are roosting in the Statehouse.

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