In Defense of the Bully
But the Garden State, in knee-jerk and premature reaction to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, passed a law. What use is a tragic death without a new law? From the New York Times:
The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.
Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.
Schools are now requires to investigate allegations of bullying, even anonymous claims coming through the police-operated "crimestoppers" phone lines. Not surprisingly, the definition, beyond the obvious, is broad:
"Harassment, intimidation or bullying" means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:In other words, anything that hurts anyone else's feelings. This isn't about the lunchline bully any more, but about the new world order where no mean words are ever uttered (or typed, as the case may be).
a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
c. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education
Caveat: For those who will respond in outrage that I just don't get it, that they/they're child has suffered horribly at the hands of bullies who destroyed their lives with invectives and lies, stop. There is bullying, and bullying is bad. Not every mean word is horrible bullying, and not every child who utters a mean word is a criminal who belongs on the bullying registry and should be given life in prison.New Jersey has managed to find a way to criminalize every child. Admit it or not, kids say mean things sometimes. They do it out of anger and insecurity; they do it because they're children. We did it. Our children did it. The teacher's children did it. Tyler Clementi did it. We all do it.
But this law goes so far down the road that even an anonymous allegation will give rise to the demand for an investigation, at the risk of the teacher's license and the district's reputation. You can bet your bottom dollar that no teacher is putting their career on the line for your li'l darling. This has the potential to be rife for abuse, not to mention the loss of personal and class time spent in teaching children to "respect" each other and celebrate their differences (upon threat of imprisonment).
Don't ask me to define what should constitute actionable bullying as opposed to normal child behavior, or bad behavior that was addressed on the school level by attentive and pro-active educators who exercised reasonable discretion in keeping their charges safe. Granted, with the introduction of the internet into the mix, dealing with the school yard tough isn't sufficient. But distinguishing between conduct that presents a serious threat and conduct that every child, at one point or another, engages in defies legal definition.
What is clear is that defining crime by the way it makes the "victim" feel is a looming disaster. By making "hurt feelings" the dividing line between acceptable and criminal behavior, we turn every child into a victim and every child into a perpetrator. Sure, no parent believes her baby could do such a thing, but the kid not only can, but invariably will, do something that some other kid will feel is hurtful. Just as it happens with adults.
This law, which is the toughest in the nation and may well serve as the model for "save the children" laws elsewhere (since no one wants to have a worse bullying problem than Jersey, of all places), may present one of the worst threats to children ever. As it is applied, as schools are mandated to investigate and "prosecute" bully after bully, as anonymous "tips" are use to get, and get back at, any child who didn't invite someone to their birthday party or picked them last in gym, we may end up with a state where every child is on the bullying registry. Or in juvenile hall. Or in jail. At least in trouble. How's that going to look on their college application?
This is not a defense of conduct that physically harms children. Nor is this a defense of harassment that crosses the line of hurt feelings to real harm, whatever that means. This is a call to stop the headlong rush to make every child a criminal in a world where no one's feelings are every hurt. This is a call to remember the old adage, "sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never harm you." We need to toughen up to mean words. We need to get over hurt feelings. We need to avoid the creation of a society where every child is a criminal.
This is a defense of children. All of them. They're all bullies at one time or another. And they're all victims. But they are not all criminals.