CONTRIBUTORS

Efforts to stop bullying in schools need better legal support

Posted Feb. 28, 2012, at 4:25 p.m.

Bullying has been defined as “a form of aggression in which one or more children intend to harm or disturb another child who is perceived as being unable to defend himself or herself.” While the traditional bully has been around since the dawn of organized education, cyberbullying is a relatively recent and perhaps, more dangerous phenomenon. Cyberbullying is bullying that occurs through electronic means such as the Internet, text messages, social media or instant messaging.

Recent national attention to several cases of suicide among youth victims of cyberbullying has raised concerns about its prevalence and psychological effect. Similarly, tragic incidents of school violence like Columbine, and just Monday in Ohio, have been linked to retaliation for bullying.

Recognizing these issues, the National School Safety Center states that bullying “is the most enduring and underrated problem in U.S. schools.”

While statistics vary widely due to differences in definition and measurement, studies have shown that approximately one-fifth of children and adolescents are bullying victims and that up to one-third are involved in bullying as the bully, the victim, or both. Up to 71 percent of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are particularly susceptible to bullying. The 2009 National School Climate Survey indicates that 85 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed; 40 percent reported being physically harassed; and 19 percent reported being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation. Nearly two-thirds felt unsafe at school.

While suicide is an extreme response to bullying, there are many other damaging psychological consequences of bullying. Short term effects include anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Longer term effects on victims include chronic absenteeism, decreased academic performance, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, victims often fail to reach their academic potential, have poor self-esteem and have difficulty in adult interpersonal relationships.

Children who bully others also have higher rates of depression than their nonbullying peers and often underachieve in school and employment settings. Bullying negatively affects entire schools by creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

While Maine already has a school bullying law on the books, it does not go far enough in addressing the issue. Current law requires all Maine schools to have a bullying policy, yet does not offer any specifications for that policy. It does not define bullying or cyberbullying, does not explicitly prohibit bullying, does not require all students and others on school grounds to comply with the policy and does not require school staff to report incidents of bullying. As a result, school bullying policies vary by school district.

While some schools have developed comprehensive and effective bullying policies, there are others that have done nothing to combat bullying.

In coming weeks the Maine Legislature will have the opportunity to vote on LD 1237, “An Act to Prohibit Bullying and Cyber Bullying in Schools.”

This new law would redress the shortcomings of Maine’s current law while providing a uniform baseline for policy development for all Maine schools. This approach would allow schools that are already doing a great job addressing bullying to continue their good work, while offering guidance to those that are not. It also protects the autonomy of each school district by allowing school boards to develop a student code of conduct with input from parents, teachers and community members.

Furthermore, LD 1237 requires training on bullying prevention for teachers and other school personnel and includes policies that focus on prevention and accountability.

Clearly, bullying affects all of Maine’s children whether as bullies, victims or as bystanders.

Our children deserve to be protected from harassment and to enjoy an educational environment that is conducive to learning. I urge all Maine parents and other concerned citizens to join me in contacting legislators and school principals in support of LD 1237. Our children’s academic and

psychological well-being, and maybe even their lives, are at stake.

Suzie Darling of Hampden is a graduate student of social work at the University of Maine.

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