Over the past five years we've seen a surge of concern—as evidenced by legislation in 46 states—about bullying. That's heartening. There's no question that serious bullying hurts children and adults alike, especially Lord of the Flies-type bullying that goes beyond the usual teen drama and can destroy a child.
Some bullying, especially what happened to many now-adult gay men when they were young (cf: the masculinity patrol), includes severe physical harm. In the 1990s, Lambda Legal won a landmark lawsuit on behalf of Jamie Nabozny, whose experience in a Wisconsin school included four years of this:
Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during class and when they found him alone kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery. Although they knew of the abuse, school officials said at one point that Nabozny should expect it if he’s gay. Nabozny attempted suicide several times, dropped out of school and ultimately ran away.... a jury found the school officials liable for the harm they caused to Nabozny. The case then settled for close to $1 million.
Thank god that is no longer considered acceptable behavior in most parts of the United States.
There's a second type of bullying that doesn't include physical assault but can be nearly as destructive. In this kind, students become an emotional mob, isolating, attacking, and undermining a particular child as a "slut" or "faggot"—in person and online. Recently, a school nurse told me that middle schoolers would rather get hit by a bus than go against their peers. That struck me as accurate. The world is very small when you're 11, 12, and 13; it's composed almost entirely of the other kids you know, kids you see every day, from whose attention you have no respite. If they all hate you and say you deserve to die, that can result in a terrifying sense of hopelessness and self-hatred—especially if you are already vulnerable to what psychologists call "thinking errors" and distorted perceptions. That's why all the high school counselors and teachers I know—and all the family violence projects—are concerned about the brave new world of harassment by text, Tweet, and Facebook, which can mean that such bullying goes on around the clock, not just in school but everywhere.
And yet I worry about the breadth and approach of the new bullying laws. The best hold teachers and school administrators accountable for intervening and rechanneling excessively cruel behavior, and for implementing curricula that teach children to handle their conflicts in healthy ways. In the very best programs, the bullies—who themselves are vulnerable children—get counseling and intervention. But some are written so broadly that they can be used to over-litigate schools and to rush to punish children instead of intervening and teaching them better ways to behave.
Over the years, the U.S. has repeatedly rushed to blame, outlaw, and convict our way out of extremely complex social problems that require research and treatment at least as much as prosecution. "Named" laws, like "Megan's Law," or laws passed in the wake of a particularly shocking event (Tyler Clementi's suicide, for instance) can bully legislators into voting against that heinous act—without carefully examining the underlying issues. Their hearts may be right, but their target may be wrong. The most worrisome anti-bullying laws verge on criminalizing children who are still learning how to behave toward one another—without considering what other kinds of help both the bullies and the bullied might need. And while no one wants to return to the days when school administrators ignored violence against kids like Jamie Nabozny and told them to buck up, neither is it useful to terrify schools into overreacting. The Department of Education just released an analysis of what's in our 46 state laws against bullying, almost all passed in the last five years. But while the study includes information about how strong various elements of these laws are, it doesn't evaluate those elements' effectiveness. Is someone out there researching which approaches actually prevent bullying, and which overreact by, say, encouraging children to call the cops on someone who pushes them in the lunch line?
When Lady Gaga called, nearly two months ago, for criminalizing bullying, a lot of LGBT insiders winced—and reached out to her, encouraging her to re-channel her advocacy away from punishment and toward encouraging adults to help students diffuse and redirect their behavior. (Side note: Whatever you think about celebrity-driven causes, it's a fact of our world.) So I'm glad that Lady Gaga visited the White House to discuss preventing bullying. But whatever solutions emerge from those (and other) discussions really need to include ways to help children cope with conflict: counseling, programs on emotional literacy, tools for discussing (rather than acting out) feelings, and supports for emotionally vulnerable children—both the bullied, and the bullies.
As Emily Bazelon's impressive reporting has shown, suicides are far too complex to prosecute. No one kills him or herself solely because of others' hatred. (I am eagerly awaiting Bazelon's book, Sticks and Stones: The New Problem of Bullying and What To Do About it, due in about a year.) Charles M. Blow, my favorite columnist for the past few years, recently wrote a powerful piece about bullying; he outed himself as having considered suicide when he was eight years old after being bullied. But it wasn't prosecution that kept him alive; it was his internal gyroscope, an intuitive sense that he was worthy of love. Not every child has that gyroscope—or there would be neither bullies nor suicides.