Getting serious about bullying

I never suffered too terribly from bullying but I had friends and family members who certainly had it worse. My brother was my hero for how he took on bullies who were several years older -- and much bigger -- than him. He had been assaulted for weeks by this gang of yahoos who made fun of my brother for how smart he was. They kept threatening to beat him up and, in fact, had shoved him around a bit. The school was of absolutely no help in the matter, which infuriated my public school teacher mother. My dad and a few other men gave my brother the news: he'd have to stand up to the bullies. And that is how my bro went from being being bullied to not having to worry about being bullied. He took on four dudes by himself and won. He earned the nickname Rocky. Oh, and he -- not the bullies -- got suspended. Now, it all worked out fine for him. As I said, his stature improved greatly and he was a very nice and respected student. All of my friends looked up to him. But I always think about those children who are bullied who can't fight back or who don't have the support of parents and community leaders.

Bullying has got to be one of the oldest sins but it's recently gotten quite a bit of attention. While I fear that childhood suicides have been linked to bullying for a long time, recent suicides that followed bullying have made major headlines. The story of Jamey Rodemeyer was particularly sad. A young boy was bullied for his sexual orientation and killed himself. He was 14 years old. Fourteen! It makes me so angry as a mother. And while I know that I can't protect my children from all of the world's evils, I'm thankful they're in a private school that has a very strict code of conduct that punishes children for rudeness.

I was thinking about all this while reading a Washington Post piece on anti-bullying legislation. The headline of the piece is "Anti-bullying legislation attacked for allowing bullying."

It was the headline that drew me in and provoked the first question: what is bullying? Now, I know what I think bullying is and yet I can't imagine writing legislation against it. In my mind, bullying is about intimidating language. But how, exactly, is it defined? And what, exactly, does "intimidating" even mean? Is that how others define it? I honestly don't know. Let's see if the article helps us out at all:

Anti-bullying legislation just approved by the Michigan Senate has been denounced by the father of the teenager for whom it was named because, he said, it actually allows bullying to continue.

The legislation, called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” was named after Matt Epling, an honor-roll student who killed himself at the age of 14 in 2002 after being assaulted by bullies at his school.

The draft law, which passed the state Senate with 26 Republican votes against 11 Democratic votes and now advances to the lower house, includes language inserted before the vote that says the bill “does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held belief or moral conviction” of a student or school worker.

Well, we don't get an answer to the question of how bullying is defined, but we do learn that the law against bullying does not supplant the First Amendment. People are still allowed to make a statement of a sincerely held belief or moral conviction.

From there, the story goes on to attack the idea that students might be allowed to make statements of moral conviction. Which means that we're probably not talking about bullying based on looks or mental abilities:

The boy’s father, Kevin Epling, posted a video to YouTube in which he says he is “ashamed” of the legislation and that it will create more strife in schools.

The law, he said, “would basically say it is okay to bully or to ignore instances of bullying based on your own religious beliefs and/or moral convictions, which is contrary to the rest of the bill and it is definitely contrary to what I’ve been telling students, to step in and step up when they see this taking place in their school. As a society, we need to decrease the bystander effect, those who sit idly by and watch as things happen.”

OK. So this is about as deep as the Washington Post item goes. We don't hear from any First Amendment scholars or anyone else who might be able to shed light on the speech issues in play. And while I can conceive of the general bullying areas we're talking about, I'm still confused about the main arguments in support of and opposed to this type of legislation that circumscribes speech. We don't learn what type of religious discussion is permitted and which isn't, although this quote is downright horrifying:

The Detroit News quoted Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), the bill’s sponsor, as saying that the bill is intended to push each school district in the state to write their own anti-bullying policy and that he does not see the law as sanctioning the kind of behavior activists are worried about.

“Certainly a child should not be allowed to go up to another child and say he’s going to hell” based on a religious conviction, Jones told the newspaper.

Oh really? A child should not be allowed to believe in hell or have ideas about salvation? Is this an accurate quote? It's really amazing, isn't it, that one of my dearest friends from childhood is an atheist and that we've been able to manage an enduring friendship of 25 years while having such fundamentally different ideas about the existence of hell much less who goes there. Would anti-bullying legislation forbid us from talking about our religious views? And on what grounds? Is anyone else confused?

And does the Post quote anyone else who might have any different view? No, not at all.

Back to the definition of bullying. I am reminded of this 30 Rock episode where the Tina Fey character goes back to a high school reunion to confront all the girls who bullied her and when she gets there, she realizes that they all thought she was the bully. I hope I was not a bully, although I did plenty other stupid things in school, but would everyone else agree? I know for a fact that the girl who bullied me in high school believes that she did not.

Bullying can be defined as "A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people," which, however unsavory, is not something free people usually make illegal. It can also be defined as "A hired ruffian; a thug." A thug's behavior might be made illegal.

It's pretty hard to be opposed to efforts to fight bullying -- and I myself think schools are frequently a big part of the problem -- but when the media talks about bullying, it should work hard to ensure the stories are of substance. What is bullying? Are religious views -- or anti-religious views -- being redefined as bullying? Is the trend toward anti-bullying legislation in conflict with either freedom of speech or freedom of religion? How?

Lady Gaga can get away with platitudes when talking about the harm of bullying. But serious publications should be a bit more serious.

And this isn't just about bullying based on sexual orientation. This weekend, the Akron Beacon Journal reported on a federal lawsuit filed by the parents of a 14-year old girl alleging years of bullying that school officials did nothing to stop. They claim that the bullying was mostly verbal and directed at her Jewish religious beliefs. Other aspects of bullying were physical and there was a Facebook page with disparaging comments about the girl. These are tough and complicated issues that would benefit from some legal and civil rights guidance.

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