Perhaps due to the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi back in 2010 (after unwittingly being filmed by another student in his dorm room with another man) the United States is now trying to address bullying in schools.
But could policy fix this problem? Is this a solvable problem?
The American Educational Research Association recently published a comprehensive paper on bullying in America, “Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities.”
The report is pretty good on what bullying looks like, who suffers from it, and how bullying impacts later psychological development. A particularly important point is that while we might think that bullying is a normal part of childhood, people don’t necessarily “get over” it. People bullied as children often suffer later in life. They’re more likely to be depressed, have substance abuse problems, and be at risk for suicide. Also, as Clementi so dramatically demonstrated, bullying does not necessarily end with high school graduation. People are bullied in college and even as adults.
What the report is not at all good at, however, is demonstrating that there are any effective policy solutions for this problem. Any at all.
The only good ways to reduce bullying, in fact, appear to be things like “a positive school climate” involving the buy-in of parents and the community. Teachers who recognize and target bullying can be pretty effective in creating a positive school climate.
The paper also says it would be useful to collect more data to understand and target bullying and that schools need to consider evidence:
There are good resources to identify anti-bullying programs that have been rigorously tested and found to be effective. Among them are the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, and the Model Programs Guide.
That’s important. Indeed committed schools might be able to create this positive environment. There’s a lot in here about changing school dynamics (including “understanding bystander behaviors, group norms, social-organizational factors (e.g., inadequate teacher training), and interactions across settings and situations”) and the importance of “further study.” But so far, it seems, no state, no school district, and no nation has ever been able to create polices that actually reduce bullying.
AERA says that “research is needed about how laws and legal policies related to bullying and harassment are understood or perceived.” And research might provide something useful for bullying reduction on a large scale.
But probably not. The trouble with bullying is that it’s essentially a personal interaction. Someone targets another student and harasses him until the bullied student fights back, the bully loses interest, or well, either student leaves school. Few schools actually allow bullying. The essence of the behavior is that it takes place under the radar of school authorities. That might be something that’s always going to be true.
Bill Gardner wondered this in a recent piece that appeared in Ten Miles Square: “Is the focus on bullying yet another overreach of the nanny state? Or is childhood bullying a significant mental health threat?”
Well, couldn’t both of these things be true? The fact that something is a significant threat doesn’t necessarily mean that nanny state intervention is warranted.
I don’t mean to sound insensitive here but there are, in fact, lots of things about childhood that cause people to be at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood. These include being bad at sports, having a physical deformity, having weird parents, being shy, etc. These are, however, not things we expect the state to be able to do a good job addressing. At what point could we conclude that legal intervention isn’t an effective strategy?
Perhaps a more important question to ask is not if bullying matters (obviously it does) but whether or not an overreach of the nanny state would actually be likely to produce meaningful results. The evidence is pretty limited so far.