Federal Anti-Bullying Bill Sparks Debate

Published September 15, 2010

As schools struggle with cyberbullying and other student-on-student abuses in and out of the classroom, a coalition of more than 70 civil rights, religious, education, professional, and civic activist groups is urging federal officials to step in with sweeping action—including a law to make bullying a federal crime.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has called on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to make combating school bullies a higher national priority.

The coalition says it wants more federal-government funding for local bullying prevention initiatives; federal mandates requiring every state and local education institution to adopt an anti-bullying harassment policy; funding for anti-bullying research; federal information sharing with state and local school districts; promotion of legislation against bullying; stronger federal enforcement of civil rights protections in schools; and more stringent rules and regulations on “exclusionary disciplinary practices,” such as restraint and confinement.

Bill Offered in Congress

In response, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced S. 3739, the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

The act would require schools that receive federal money to adopt certain codes of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.

In a speech at the International Equality Dinner earlier this year, Casey explained his legislation is necessary because data shows bullying happens “most frequently to children who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”

Several organizations have endorsed the act. They include the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, and the Human Rights Campaign.

More Than Just Bullying

U.S. Department of Education officials convened an anti-bullying conference in August to discuss possible federal responses to local bullying problems. Duncan delivered opening remarks at the event, where he described what safe schools look like.

“A safe school is one where students feel like they belong,” Duncan said. “The students feel secure, valued, and are surrounded by adults that they trust. Safe schools also cultivate a culture of respect and caring—and have little tolerance for disruptiveness.”

“At a safe school, students don’t curse or threaten teachers. They don’t spend most of their class time texting other students or tune out on their iPods. Students don’t roam the hallways,” he said.

Private Schools Concerned

Joe McTighe, executive director for the Council for American Private Education, a coalition of national organizations and state affiliates serving private elementary and secondary schools, says Duncan’s vision of safe schools closely resembles what private schools already provide.

“We obviously oppose bullying in schools, and private school administrators take the steps necessary to address the problem whenever it becomes known,” McTighe said.

“Administrators in religious and independent schools know exactly what the Secretary is talking about because he is describing those schools quite accurately,” he added.

But McTighe warned against federal overreach.

“We are always on high alert about possible government controls that might threaten the autonomy of private schools and that might constitute an unacceptable level of regulation that could ultimately render private schools indistinguishable from public schools,” he said.

Local Solutions Preferred

Robert Holland, senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute, says there’s need for federal meddling in local disciplinary issues.

“The U.S. Department of Education—the least popular of all federal agencies according to a recent Pew poll—should not intervene in this local issue,” Holland said.

“Well-trained classroom teachers, working in cooperation with parents, should discipline students who engage in bullying or other misbehavior,” he said. “Local school boards should spell out disciplinary policies clearly. If a school fails to maintain sound discipline, parents should be free to choose a better school for their children.”

“Since its founding as a political payoff from Jimmy Carter to the National Education Association, this lavishly funded Cabinet-level department has failed to solve any problem it has addressed, an example being the minority achievement gap, and indeed has often made it harder for schools to succeed,” Holland explained.

“We ought to be holding summits on dismantling this bureaucratic monstrosity and returning power to the people, as opposed to pursuing yet another politically driven agenda,” he said.

“Parents are sick and tired of the federal bullying,” Holland said.

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.