Obama's Dangerous, Futile Anti-Bullying Crusade
I have long suspected that deep within the Obama White House there exists a super-secret agency dedicated to undermining the America cherished by most Americans. Probably innocuously called something like the "Office of Special Projects," its subversive mission is as follows. First, uncover some must-solve "problem" that, supposedly, requires an immediate government solution; second, make sure that "solving" this phony problem will greatly expand federal power regardless of constitutional constraints; third, the end result should be an army of meddling bureaucrats; and finally, high-minded aims aside, solutions will fail, but expanded federal power and bloated payrolls will be forever.
Though the aforementioned is speculative, it might as well exist; consider the Obama administration's recent initiative to stop school bullying.
The Constitution is crystal-clear -- the national government lacks any authority in state and local education. Even the 1958 National Defense Education Act that mobilized U.S. scientific talent, enacted post-Sputnik I, drew congressional ire as unwarranted federal meddling. After the 1960s Washington might assist school districts for specific purposes -- e.g., helping the disadvantaged -- but micro-managing the school was, and correctly so, deemed unconstitutional.
Obama's anti-bullying campaign violates these longstanding principles, but alas, nobody seems to care. Who wants to be pro-bully?
Some background. Bullying is part of human nature. All social groups, including chimpanzees and dogs, have social hierarchies enforced with beatings, intimidation, insults, and favoritism. Eliminating bullying is not at all different from Soviet efforts at undermining the family or stamping out religion -- ideologically driven re-engineering of deeply rooted human nature. In the battle for survival, hierarchically organized groups undoubtedly defeated their disorganized egalitarian rivals.
Nevertheless, society has developed norms to handle conflicts lest these battles escalate to debilitating levels. Traditional conflict-reduction mechanisms include physical separation, the intervention of higher authority, or strict rules to dampen conflict. In the old West, for example, real men did not bully women and children, and if they did, other men stepped in. "Pick on somebody your own size" sums it up. It was no accident that the six-shooter was called "the equalizer." If bullying escalated, there was recourse to the law.
More relevant today, most teachers and other school officials intuitively know how to curtail bullying provided they possess adequate authority and can exercise it. It hardly takes much -- a strong scolding -- to punish a ten-year old bully, even without corporal punishment. Or the person bullied successfully fights back -- recall the Johnny Cash song, "The Coward of the County." The vulnerable can also organize for self-protection -- strength in numbers. The catalogue of proven remedies outside federal intervention is extensive and has always existed.
So, given this hardwired bullying and a decent already pre-existing effective repertoire of anti-bullying, what can Washington add? The short answer: nothing beyond a blizzard of obtuse regulations overseen by yet more functionaries that will only undermine education and increase taxes. Anybody surprised?
This stealthy, unconstitutional, and expensive overreach has already been skillfully accomplished. It began by characterizing bullying as a "serious problem" deserving immediate national attention. In a December 16, 2010 "Dear Colleague" letter, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that "[r]ecent incidents of bullying have demonstrated its potentially devastating effects on students, schools, and communities and have spurred a sense of urgency among State and local educators and policymakers to take action to combat bullying. The U.S. Department of Education shares this sense of urgency and is taking steps to help school officials effectively reduce bullying in our Nation's schools . Bullying can be extremely damaging to students, can disrupt an environment conducive to learning, and should not be tolerated in our schools." (Emphasis added.)
It gets worse -- it has become a dangerous plague. Duncan further adds, "According to recently released data by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 70 percent of students play some role in bullying, whether as a bully, a victim or a witness, demonstrating the need for increased awareness. Other research suggests that bullying and harassment can lead to poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism, and lower grade-point averages." At last, the true culprit of our multiple educational woes is exposed: the bully!
Think about this. For 175 years, the U.S. educational system has survived, even thrived, without federal anti-bullying efforts. So what is the current urgency for meddling into 98,817 K-12 schools enrolling some 98,706,000 students? The secretary surely knows the obstacles to promoting basic literacy, let alone controlling the behavior of millions of students in schools, many of which already verge on chaos. Taken at his word, Arne Duncan is demanding a multi-billion-dollar totalitarian state complete with security cameras everywhere, paid informers, and hoards of school police. Has Arne ever encountered the term "opportunity cost"?
But a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step, and Uncle Sam is on the march. A government website advises what citizens can do to stop bullying, notable for giving special attention to gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgendered K-12 students, though this population probably constitutes less than 5% of all students. Also joining the anti-bullying campaign are the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture (Agriculture?), Interior, Defense, and Justice. Naturally, there is gold in these hills. The Education Department has already awarded eleven Safe and Supportive Schools Grants to states to develop measurement systems to assess schools' conditions for learning, including the prevalence of bullying, and to implement programs to improve overall school safety. The government's website also provides cartoons, videos, and advisories on how to spot and prevent bullying.
Equally predictable: Washington has raised the specter of school budget-draining litigation if bullies are not thwarted. To quote, "under certain circumstances, bullying may trigger legal responsibilities for schools under the civil rights laws enforced by OCR and the Department of Justice that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion. Schools must protect students from bullying and harassment on these bases, in addition to any obligations under state and local law." In other words, if the schoolyard dodgeball game turns ugly, here come the lawyers and the parents of harmed students, demanding cash settlements. Just what financially stressed school districts need -- more litigation.
Watch out, bullies: new regulations and enforcers are on their way. The Department of Education has already drafted "effective" anti-bullying laws and is standing by to supply technical assistance to schools, and, we are assured, more help is on the way. Indeed, taking their cue from Washington, forty-five states have already enacted anti-bulling laws. A recent Bullying Prevention Summit was a two-day event hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with eight other federal agencies that make up the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee. The event engages representatives from federal agencies, national organizations, parents, teachers, and students to discuss and share progress on anti-bullying efforts across the country.
There's more, but this must suffice. Ironically, of course, this bullying problem is largely government-created. It is an open secret that many of today's teachers rationally take a laissez-faire approach to student misconduct. After all, punishing too many bullies with the "wrong" traits may bring a Department of Justice lawsuit, outcries from overly protective parents ("my son is a good boy"), and the usual grievance group complaints (see here). How many contemporary parents reflexively side with teachers? Just as the police often ignore petty infractions in certain neighborhoods, teachers often look the other way. It's just not worth all the bureaucratic fuss and risks to stop one youngster taunting another. Better to seek sanctuary in the faculty lounge.
In the final analysis, bullying is an ancient problem, and strong teachers and principals, not a hyperactive rule-issuing Uncle Sam, make for the correct solution. Uncle has more pressing obligations.