State Laws and Policies to Address Bullying in Schools

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article focuses on the recent flurry of legislation in states to address bullying among school children. The primary purpose is to describe, compare, and contrast current state laws about bullying. Specifically, a description is provided of legislators' definitions of bullying and legislative findings about the nature and seriousness of bullying. Next, an analysis is conducted of the stated purposes of these laws and their likely consequences. Following is a brief review of several states' efforts to develop model policies about bullying. Finally, recommendations are made about actions that legislators and other policy makers can take to best support educators in the development of effective bullying prevention policies and programs.

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Historically, bullying among school children has not been a topic of significant public concern. Indeed, many adults have viewed the experience of being bullied as a rite of passage for children and youth. In recent years, however, attention to bullying among children has increased dramatically among school personnel, members of the general public, and policy makers. The attention is well deserved. Recent research indicates that bullying is quite prevalent among American school children, directly involving approximately 30% of school children within a school semester (17% as victims of bullying and 19% as perpetrators; Nansel et al., 2001; see also Melton et al., 1998). Moreover, research confirms that bullying among children poses serious risks for victims and bullies (Limber, 2002; Nansel et al., 2001; Nansel, Overpeck, Haynie, Ruan, & Scheidt, 2003) and may seriously affect the climate of schools (Limber, 2002).

The rising recognition of bullying as a serious problem has caused many to rethink how school policies directed at increasing safety and reducing violence may be modified or expanded to address bullying. Specifically, many state legislatures now are interested in passing laws that influence the development of school-based violence prevention policies that are inclusive of bullying. In turn, school administrators and staff are interested in learning how existing policies may be modified to address bullying more directly and in discovering how bullying prevention principles and programs might best be implemented in school settings. This interest has resulted in a significant amount of legislative, policy, and programmatic activity in recent years related to bullying.

Although schools are governed by a complicated set of interrelated federal and state laws, the majority of policies and practices regarding school disciplinary practices are crafted at the state and local levels. Specifically, policies regarding discipline, suspension, and expulsion most often are determined by a combination of state legislative policy and local school district policy. Consequently, thus far, state laws have been the primary legislative vehicle for announcing new initiatives designed to reduce bullying behavior. Because state laws have a greater potential to influence the policies and practices of local school districts and individual schools related to bullying, they are the emphasis for this article.

Even though state laws dominate the legal landscape, federal laws and policies do provide incentives for school districts to address student safety. Indeed, through major activities such as the "No Child Left Behind" initiative, the federal government often provides funding for research and demonstration programs that address school violence. Moreover, a public awareness campaign entitled, "Take a Stand. Lend a Hand. Stop Bullying Now" that specifically addresses bullying (Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services) is currently being launched.

This article will focus on the recent flurry of legislation in states to address bullying among school children--describing, comparing, and contrasting current state laws about bullying. …