Ruling that Anti-bullying Law is Unconstitutional is a Relief

Published February 7, 2012

It is rather a relief for New Jersey school districts and students that a state panel has ruled a new anti-bullying law unfunded, and therefore unconstitutional, because the law itself would have constituted bullying, largely outsourcing it to schools.

The law would require schools to appoint “safety teams” of parents, teachers and staff. Both schools and districts would have to designate or hire “anti-bullying coordinators.” Schools would be required to investigate, within one day, every single incident that could be considered bullying; convene meetings with all the parents of the children involved; and file district and state paperwork. Imagine the enormity of such requirements for schools with dozens or hundreds of children, when even facial expressions can count as “bullying.”

The law would require administrators, parents and school board members to take yearly bullying or suicide prevention training. It would even make schools responsible for bullying that took place off-campus and outside of school hours. It would provide mechanisms to encourage school kids to report each other anonymously to the police. The law includes 18 pages of similarly frightening “required components.”

New Jersey enacted this law in justified horror as a result of a Rutgers University student committing suicide after a roommate allegedly videotaped him with another man. But legislators curiously did not apply their law to Rutgers, instead imposing it on K-12 public schools. Anyone with a conspiratorial bent might think they co-opted people’s emotions to serve a preconceived agenda. Clearly, the Legislature’s response is absurdly overdone and counterproductive.

Advocates of these legal labyrinths tell us they’re necessary to protect children from bullying. Obviously, no one wants children or anyone else to commit suicide or even to be called “stupid,” but these advocates are so blinded by their tears that they cannot see that the solutions they propose perpetuate the problem.

This law defines as bullying nearly anything someone finds uncomfortable. Thus, it ends up bullying the state’s teachers and administrators who, on top of their already-heavy burden of educating young minds, must now police them as well. It also means teaching children that anything that causes discomfort — such as hard work, or learning, or honest disagreements — is unfair and evil, and must be stopped.

These anti-bullying measures essentially turn the state and its schools into a naggy, energy-sapping helicopter mom.

States can’t be a mother or father, and neither can schools. School is not a prolonged group therapy session — it exists to educate, not re-educate. Schools should address disruptive or destructive behavior, but they shouldn’t be required to follow kids home and demand paperwork be filed for every word uttered that violates the ever-expanding New Jersey Mean Words Criteria.

Filing paperwork and going on hiring sprees has never stopped anyone from killing themselves. Strong, positive relationships with peers and adults are the answer. More paperwork and pointless meetings will absorb the time adults could have spent developing relationships with kids who feel unloved.

What a terrible unintended consequence that would be.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute.

[First published in the Newark Star-Ledger.]