September 18, 2014

The realities of bullying and how lawyers can help

The lawyers participating in a recent American Bar Association webinar were no strangers to bullying. All participants said they had experienced bullying in their life, and more than half said they had bullied someone else. Their responses re-enforced the message of the program’s panelists: Bullying is a widespread problem, and action needs to be taken to address the issue.

Bullyproof, this year’s public service project of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, provides educational information and resources to empower parents, educators, students and young lawyers to make bullying a thing of the past. YLD sponsored the webinar “Introduction to Legal Issues Related to Bullying: Practical Tips from Those on the Front Lines.”

The initiative’s website features resources directed to each group as well as a toolkit that includes a step-by-step process for implementation of the program at schools. A video for the project, narrated by Printz Board, songwriter and producer of the Black Eyed Peas, gives some startling facts about bullying:

  • 280,000 students are attacked monthly in high school.
  • 15 to 30 percent of students are bullies or victims.
  • 9 in 10 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students have been bullied.
  • Victims of bullying are up to nine times more likely to think about suicide.
  • Only 36 percent of bullying incidents are reported.
  • 3.7 million sixth- to 10th-graders will engage in bullying every year.
  • Bullying is linked to 75 percent of shootings.

Judge Lee Bussart Bowles of the Tennessee General Sessions Court explained the difference between harassment and bullying. She defined harassment as bullying behavior that also involves a characteristic — race, color, national origin, sex, gender or disability — that is protected under federal law.

“There’s a lot of bullying situations that aren’t going to fall into these categories,” Bowles said. “Harassment’s a very narrow definition when you look at what is truly protected under these federal laws. We have a lot of what some might consider nastiness, rudeness, unkindness that would not fall under these protections.”

Bullying, on the other hand, is more broadly defined as aggressive behavior that is repetitious and involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the target.

State laws that address bullying vary in their scope, with most simply requiring schools to adopt an anti-bullying policy, Bowles said. Eight states, however, extend their laws to cover off-campus activities, including cyber bullying. She recommended reading the ABA book “School Bullying: How Long Is the Arm of the Law?” by James C. Hanks for a “great summary of state-by-state issues and different problems that states have had.”

Bowles noted that anti-bullying laws are usually vague and ineffective. “I’m not sure that the law can provide an adequate remedy,” she said. “Certainly the law has a place, but this really is a social issue that is going to require a change in how we view the issue.”

Bowles has had a number of bully cases come before her, and she said she views them as an opportunity to teach rather than just to punish — especially when the cases involve children. “If you give people an opportunity for redemption, it really teaches the whole community a lesson,” she said.

Ted Farley, executive director of the It Gets Better Project, said that judges and lawyers see only a fraction of the actual bullying cases and that most instances of bullying go unreported. He cited studies showing that only 20 percent of those who experience bullying report it to an adult and that almost 37 percent of those who did report an incident said the school did nothing about it.

Students may not report bullying to school officials because they fear more threats as retaliation or because they feel that the school will not help, Farley said. “As a community, our responsibility is to look out for those types of situations and try to create school environments in which those who could perhaps be bullied for any reason feel empowered to come forward and to talk about it,” he said.

Farley encouraged supportive education environments that address bullying directly or have a strong focus on community at school as well as inclusive curriculums that feature stories of people from areas that are likely targets for bullying. He also said that gay-straight alliances at schools are shown to greatly reduce the amount of LGBT bullying.

He discouraged the use of zero-tolerance policies, which automatically suspend or expel a student for certain behavior, adding that those punishments have not proved effective in changing behaviors. “Students who are bullied are more likely to be punished under zero-tolerance policies than the actual bullies,” Farley said. “This comes as a result of the fact that when students who are bullied actually decide, for better or worse, to take action against their bully, they are more likely to get in trouble for their actions, and quite often their behaviors fall under actions that are mentioned within these zero-tolerance policies.”

Bowles said that when bullying is reported, schools must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate and then to eliminate the hostile environment. Do not punish the victim, she stressed, noting that this is often done unintentionally and for practical purposes, such as trying to separate two students by changing their schedules.

“It’s truly an issue that I think sometimes administrators overlook when they are trying to remedy a situation,” Bowles said. “The primary focus is on safety, and they don’t think about the message they are sending.”

Farley said that members of a community have a responsibility to educate themselves about the dynamics of bullying. “Without understanding, we can’t really come up with the best possible solutions for the issue, and we might in fact be doing more harm than good,” he added.

He suggested getting involved by working with a youth-based community or nonprofit group in your area, participating in a mentoring program or supporting local groups that are active in combating bullying.

He added that lawyers can make a difference by helping school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies if they don’t already have them or by volunteering free legal services to populations at risk for bullying, such as LGBT youth, kids in foster care or young people with disabilities.

“When this comes to you as a lawyer, as a member of your community, do something,” Bowles said.