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

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

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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.

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