In the wake of the suicide of a Rutgers University student, New Jersey lawmakers passed one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation, but one with a couple of fatal flaws.
Local school districts have no say on the punishment – there is extensive training required as well as extensive reporting and an 18-page checklist on how to deal with individual incidents. But the law does not specify what qualifies as bullying, so educators don't know what a valid incident even is. School officials thus have the worst of both worlds: no control and no guidance.
Indiana seems to have gotten those two things right. Our law does define what bullying is. And schools can craft their own anti-bullying policies. So we have both guidance and local autonomy.
Not that our law can't be improved, which is the goal of Angela Stagg of Whiteland, who was unhappy with the way her daughter's school handled bullying against her and is now on something of a crusade. She is trying to get lawmakers to expand the state's definition of bullying and impose harsh punishments on offenders. Part of the local control enjoyed by school districts is that they don't have to punish anybody if they don't want to.
Indiana law defines bullying as “overt, repeated” actions meant to harm others. That is a little vague and general, so something more concrete and specific should probably be considered. And Stagg also wants the definition to cover cyber-bullying, which the law does not now address. That, too, should be looked at. Law that doesn't keep up with technological advances isn't just useless – it can be downright dangerous.
Legislators can be too zealous about the anti-bullying fight. It will not help the education agenda if we criminalize every joke, tease and taunt of the type students have always been able to work out for themselves. Some groups with agendas to push have tried to hijack the effort to do just that so that their groups can be placed above any negative interactions.
But bullying is real, and by all indications it is getting worse. It's a problem the state has to deal with, so the General Assembly should act on Mrs. Stagg's urgings and at least form one of those famous summer study committees.
A primary obligation of educators is to provide a safe, welcoming learning environment for all students. When bullies are allowed to threaten that environment, they need to be dealt with swiftly and strongly.