Bully for You; Bully for Me

I hear a lot about "bullying" these days. And I've been wondering why.

Two evenings ago, cutting across a school playground while out for a walk, I wandered over to an area with lots of chalk markings. Instead of colorful patterns and hopscotch outlines, I found dozens of messages written in gigantic letters, all with the same message: "Stop bullying!"

Standing in the middle of these admonitions, I thought to myself, what is going on? I don't remember this being such a huge issue when I was growing up. For sure there were kids who picked on other kids. Some were verbally disrespectful. Others were physically intimidating. But those who picked on others were on the fringe. Most kids were just dealing with the normal challenges of growing up, which included navigating the waters of what now appears to have become a major issue called bullying.

Has bullying become more pervasive and aggressive in recent years? Or is it just reported more often than it used to be? Is something serious going on, or is it a manufactured crisis?

The Mayo Clinic reframes bullying.

Bullying was once considered a childhood rite of passage. Today, however, bullying is recognized as a serious problem.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says present day bullying is not just "kids being kids," singling out particular vulnerability among young people who are gay or transgender, or those who are perceived to be so.

Many organizations that track bullying trends note a decline in bullying behavior. The decline is often attributed to anti-bullying programs and increased awareness, though there is no data as yet to support this hypothesis.

The last several years have brought a number of high profile bullying and cyberbullying (sic) cases to the attention of the media. The severity of the incidents has generated speculation that the prevalence of victimization between children and teens has increased.

Despite the media frenzy around events such as school shootings, suicides, and filmed beatings on YouTube, there is no definitive evidence that bullying is on the rise.

In addition to anti-bullying programs, there has been an onslaught of anti-bullying legislation as a response, in part, to high profile cases including teen suicides. Suicide is a complex issue and there are often a host of factors that contribute to it. Alex Crosby, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC (who notes increased vulnerability among Hispanic teenagers) states:

"Suicide is a complex behavior," he said. "Almost always, there are multiple factors that play a role in a person engaging in suicidal behavior."

Regarding the general increase in the number of teens attempting suicide in the United States, Crosby lists several factors, including juvenile drug use and the effects of the economic downturn on families.

"It may be multiple factors that play a role, whether it has to do with family stressors, school stressors [or] substance abuse issues," Crosby said. "It could've been a combination, also, that could lead to an increase in the reports of suicidal behavior."

Last year, The Christian Science Monitor published an informative article about anti-bullying laws, noting "the fight against bullying is a cause célèbre," and asking why all the sudden attention.

It's hard to know, of course, which came first: law or social trend. Chances are they have reinforced one another. But for now, we'll take a look at how anti-bullying legal landscape has changed - rapidly and dramatically - over the past decade or so, and why some people are troubled at what lawmakers and advocates almost always portray as a positive movement against bullying.

Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying legislation in place; Montana is the only state without an anti-bullying statute. This is a huge increase from just a few years ago, and 15 years ago there weren't any anti-bullying laws at all.

Katharine Silbaugh, a law professor at the Boston University School of Law and an expert on bullying legislation, explains that the first laws against bullying passed soon after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, as lawmakers scrambled to respond to what suddenly seemed to be a shockingly dangerous phenomenon in schools.

(To recap some of what we've written before about Columbine: Almost immediately after the shooting, in which two seniors killed 12 other students and one teacher, media reports focused on the idea that the perpetrators were social outcasts who were taking revenge for being bullied. That narrative, however, has been challenged: in his book, "Columbine," for instance, author David Cullen unravelled [sic] the bullied-versus-bully story line, which he found to be almost entirely a media creation.)

The laws spread rapidly across the country. Between 1999 and 2010, according to the US Department of Education, 120 bills were enacted by state legislatures either introducing or amending laws to address bullying and related behaviors in schools. (snip)

Moreover, the laws can muddy the conversation about bullying. While at least 41 states provide definitions of "bullying" within their statutes, these definitions differ from one another...These characteristics are important, scholars say, to distinguish "bullying" from drama, teenage bad behavior, and other sorts of conflict.

Or, some say, to differentiate "bullying" from voiced opinions that school administrators just don't like.

New Jersey, for instance, which is lauded as having one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country, has come under fire from free speech advocates for its anti-bullying policies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says that the state's laws, which prohibit speech that "has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students" in such a way to substantially disrupt or interfere with the "orderly operation of the institution," cause administrators to over-react to criticism, or even humor, that might include a perceived insult.

The final thoughts in the article are certainly sobering and should give anyone pause as to how anti-bullying efforts could have unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences related to free speech, and how anti-bullying laws could be used in a selective fashion. There are already many examples of how tolerance for so-called bullying is biased. One need look no further than how conservative voices in educational settings are often shut down.

As you might anticipate, the President Obama's got involved in the issue of bullying, as well. In 2011, at a conference on bullying prevention, the President shared personal recollections of bullying he endured growing up. (Right out of the gate, he utters a lie in the second sentence, since he did not use the name Barack when he was a child. But that's a subject for another time.)

As adults, we all remember what it was like to see kids picked on in the hallways or in the schoolyard. And I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune. (Laughter.) (snip)

And bullying has been shown to lead to absences and poor performance in the classroom. And that alone should give us pause, since no child should be afraid to go to school in this country.

Today, bullying doesn't even end at the school bell -- it can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens. And in recent months, a series of tragedies has drawn attention to just how devastating bullying can be. We have just been heartbroken by the stories of young people who endured harassment and ridicule day after day at school, and who ultimately took their own lives. These were kids brimming with promise -- kids like Ty Field, kids like Carl Walker-Hoover -- who should have felt nothing but excitement for the future. Instead, they felt like they had nowhere to turn, as if they had no escape from taunting and bullying that made school something they feared. I want to recognize Ty's mom and dad who are here today; Carl's mother and sister who are here today. They've shown incredible courage as advocates against bullying in memory of the sons and the brother that they've lost. And so we're so proud of them and we're grateful to them for being here today. (Applause.)

No family should have to go through what these families have gone through. No child should feel that alone. We've got to make sure our young people know that if they're in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help; that even if they're having a tough time, they're going to get through it, and there's a whole world full of possibility waiting for them. We also have to make sure we're doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place. And this is a responsibility we all share -- a responsibility we have to teach all children the Golden Rule: We should treat others the way we want to be treated.

(You have to love the president invoking the Golden Rule, so above the fray is he.)

The New York Times was one of several media outlets to cover the conference.

To disseminate information from the government, the President announced a new Web site, StopBullying.gov. In October, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights sent letters to educators explaining their legal duties to protect students from bullying based on race, ethnicity, disability, or sexuality.

I'm not sure why religion was not included in that list, but it wasn't. And I don't know why it would take a letter from a federal office to remind schools that it is their responsibility to keep students safe while school is in session. But apparently it did.

Meanwhile, just for the record, here is part of the definition of a bully according to the website established by the President:

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

Remember that.

This year, Congressman Bruce Braley and Senator Tom Harkin are considering introducing a bill to address bullying.

"Conditions have changed dramatically since I was in high school," Braley said. "Today's teachers face much more management issues in the classroom in addition to helping students learn. ... And positive modeling from parents is lacking. It would be ideal if we lived in a society where every parent took on that and handled it in a positive way and we didn't have these problems to cope with. But the harsh reality is that Iowa teachers are spending far more time in classroom management than they used to when these problems were not as pronounced."

Harkin comes at the issue from a different perspective. He recalled an anti-bulllying (sic) hearing in Iowa last summer where he heard "gripping" testimony from students who said they had been bullied. Harkin chairs the Senate Education Committee and is using his committee to promote the cause. "Their words stuck with me," Harkin said. "This bill ... will help ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and afforded equal opportunities to succeed in the classroom.

There are no anti-bullying federal laws, but in some cases bullying can overlap with discrimination and harassment that is prohibited under federal civil rights laws. Also, several states have passed a variety of anti-bullying measures in recent years, particularly as the growth of social media has created more cases of cyber-bulling and reports of suicides among some teenagers. Some states have passed outright laws against bullying, while others have sought to define it and others have delegated authority to local school districts. Others have established statewide reporting procedures and provided for more information collection about cases. The issue has received heightened attention in Iowa - Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is holding his second-annual anti-bullying summit in November.

As far as I can tell, we've got experts telling us that bullying is no different than it's always been except now we pay more attention to it, that bullying may seem to have become more pervasive because it is now more frequently reported, that bullying has gotten worse, that bullying has gotten better, and that bullying behaviors may fall under existing civil rights laws, among a multitude of other observations.

One thing's for sure. Based on the definition of a bully, I have no doubt we've got one sitting in the Oval Office.