Anti-Bullying Laws Get Tough With Schools

New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, considered by many as the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation, went into effect this month. Host Scott Simon talks with Emily Bazelon of Slate Magazine about bullying laws, where they're working and where they're headed (hint: the Supreme Court).

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The problem of bullying has escalated in recent years, from schoolyard taunts to online slurs. This month, two new anti-bullying laws have gone into effect. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a resolution instructing staff to intervene in what they deem to be cases of bias, harassment or bullying. And it requires social studies materials in the schools include positive representations of lesbian, gay, bi- and transgendered people.

Earlier in September, New Jersey instituted a new anti-bullying bill of rights, touted by some as the toughest in the nation. It allows for students to report bullies to a crime-stopper hotline. It includes extensive training for students to recognize bullying, and it encourages them to report it if they see bullying taking place. Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate magazine, and she's currently writing a book about bullying, called "Sticks and Stones." She joins us from Philadelphia. Thanks for being with us.

EMILY BAZELON: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Are New Jersey's new laws tougher, or distinctly different, from other states?

BAZELON: They're tougher in the sense that the state has gone beyond telling local school districts that they need to have a policy about bullying and a reporting procedure for bullying, to giving very specific requirements about training and curriculum for students. So that's one change. And another is that I think New Jersey is the first state which will have public ratings for the school districts - where you'll be able to look up your school's bullying score, in effect.

SIMON: And I gather that under this law, schools are required to do things like designate an anti-bullying specialist, an anti-bullying coordinator?

BAZELON: That's right. And that's fairly standard in the sense that a lot of schools have turned to someone - often a guidance counselor or an administrator - for figuring out what programs to bring in to try to prevent it.

SIMON: So this doesn't have to be a full-time position - because, of course, there's the concern about local school budgets at this particular point.

BAZELON: Right. I think there's a different funding concern with New Jersey's law, which is that the state didn't give the school districts any money in particular for this new training mandate. And so a lot of school districts have been looking for some kind of materials that they can use, that they know will fulfill all of the state requirements. And they've been shelling out about $1,300 to a private company, one by one, which isn't necessarily the best use of state funds.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, that raises a whole other question. How, after eight or nine years of anti-bullying laws - if not more - how effective are they?

BAZELON: There have been anti-bullying programs that have shown to be effective in elementary school, in particular, somewhat in middle school, and then really not so much in high school yet. And so part of this is that there's still a nut to be cracked in figuring out what the best way is to deal with this problem in school.

SIMON: And I think I can guess, but why are they less effective in high school than in grade school?

BAZELON: I bet you're thinking of the right answer, which is that older students often don't respond to adults telling them how to behave as well as younger students. And so the best programs try to get the kids to take responsibility themselves. And sometimes, you can get high school students to talk about their own experiences to younger kids. And when you put them in the sort of expert role, they respond to that. But those sorts of efforts often need to come organically, from the kids themselves. It's harder for adults to figure out how to orchestrate them.

SIMON: I think we've all read news accounts in recent years; that's helped us to realize that bullying isn't just wedgies in the hallway anymore. It often happens through emails, social media platforms, texts. What, really, can schools do about cyber-bullying when so much of it takes place outside of the school?

BAZELON: A bunch of states have tried to address that by making cyber-bullying illegal. There is a legal question about the student's free-speech rights. If they're writing things on Facebook or another site outside of campus, does a school district have the authority to discipline them? Or is that their First Amendment right, to be saying whatever they want to say outside of school? This is really an unresolved question and eventually, I think, one of these cases will make it up to the Supreme Court.

SIMON: Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate magazine, co-host of their Political Gabfest podcast. And she's also writing a book about bullying, called "Sticks and Stones." Thanks so much.

BAZELON: Thank you.

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