What’s the best way to tackle bullying?

The Deseret News recently relayed a wonderful story about a young man and his football teammates who befriended a girl who had been bullied by others. Their efforts made a real difference in her life and the way she was treated by others.

Bullying is reprehensible and getting some needed attention but it does not seem to be decreasing.

Utah law requires school boards to train school employees on the issue and encourages implementation of “programs or initiatives” for education and prevention. It also requires a bullying policy which “shall include” definitions and prohibitions of bullying.

The Utah State Office of Education’s model policy specifies bullying is “not tolerated.” The policy’s definition of bullying seems to cover all of the terrible behaviors that should be stopped. It also includes, for federal law purposes, a separate section aimed at addressing bullying “that is targeted at a federally protected class” which are specified as race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, gender (not clear how this is different from sex), and sexual orientation. These additional items trigger a different response if bullying occurred “as a result of the student-victim’s membership in a protected class.” In that instance, the school has to “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to: (a) end the bullying … (b) eliminate any hostile environment, and (c) prevent its recurrence.” Federal law, apparently, is not as worried about those who are bullied over their appearance, intelligence or other reasons.

The key question, of course, is whether the statements of non-toleration and the singling out of certain victim classes are the right approach to make a difference. Utah’s law seems to allow for more. What might help?

Dr. Gwen Dewar points out that there is research pointing to some “promising approaches” to prevent bullying: screening repeat bullies for psychiatric conditions, emphasizing ethics, promoting “authoritative” parenting (which “encourages kids to regulate their own behavior” by “setting clear limits, explaining the reasons behind the rules, being responsive, and treating kids as independent, rational, cooperative family members”), and protecting children from trauma, abuse or bullying at home (all of which are associated with family instability). Less helpful are drastic punishments or programs that do not differentiate between “confident aggressors” and “bully-victims.”

Perhaps most interesting is that the Arizona quarterback’s story illustrates one of the promising approaches. Dr. Dewar explains that student intervention in bullying episodes is very effective in stopping the behavior. Another recent study made similar findings.

All of this is to suggest that communities could move beyond zero-tolerance statements and identifying which groups deserve special protection to do some things likely to make a real difference, like promoting stable and loving families, encouraging personal responsibility to protect others and teaching moral standards.

If we’re really serious about addressing the problem, these are the kinds of things that look promising for making a difference. They also provide a good template for evaluating proposals for legislation and policies going forward.

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