Ever since the horrific school shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, school administrators have been clamoring to have school anti-bullying laws passed, believing that such laws will give schools the power to put an end to bullying among students. What administrators failed to realize is that such laws are actually their worst enemy. Rather than eliminating bullying, the laws make schools the defendants in anti-bullying lawsuits, as South Hadley High and many other schools throughout the nation are discovering. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for schools to present a convincing defense in court because virtually all of the bullying experts believe that schools should be held legally responsible for the way kids treat each other.
The school's defense is based on the claim that the administration was not fully aware of the bullying Phoebe Prince was experiencing. The underlying assumption, apparently accepted even by the defense team, is that had the administration indeed known about the bullying, they could have then apprehended and punished Phoebe's bullies, thereby saving her life.
However, this assumption is supported neither by the scientific research on bullying, real life experience, or common sense.
If the defense lawyers were to bother to inspect the research on anti-bullying programs, and particularly the approach espoused by the school's high-powered bullying consultant Barbara Coloroso, they would discover how incredibly unreliable these programs are. In the December 2004 issue of the School Psychology Review, psychologist David Smith published a metanalysis of the research on whole school anti-bullying programs–the approach developed by Prof. Dan Olweus, the "father" of the anti-bullying psychology, and adopted by Coloroso. Prof. Smith found that 86% of the published studies showed the anti-bullying program had no benefit or made the problem even worse. Only 14% of the published studies showed that the anti-bullying program produced a minor reduction in bullying. Not one study showed a major reduction in bullying. More recent metanalyses have corroborated Smith's findings: these programs don't even come close to eradicating bullying.
Furthermore, both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have issued research-based opinion papers recommending that schools shun punitive approaches to discipline because they cause more harm than good.
How can a school be held legally responsible for the bullying that goes on between students when the punitive anti-bullying programs they are being required to employ have such dismal results and often make the bullying problem worse? Law enforcement agencies are responsible for protecting the public from crime, but they don't get sued for failing to prevent a crime from occurring. Psychotherapists are responsible for improving the mental health of their clients, but they don't get sued when a client fails to improve. Schools exist to educate children, but they don't get sued when a student fails to get educated. Strangely, we believe schools deserve to be sued for failing to prevent bullying among students. If anyone is to be sued for failing to prevent bullying, shouldn't it be the bullying consultants who provide the ineffective programs? (Don't get me wrong. I am not in favor of suing bullying consultants. I assure you I would immediately stop working as a bullying consultant if bullying consultants were held legally responsible for failing to prevent a child from being bullied.)
Meanwhile Coloroso, rather than taking responsibility for her failure to reduce bullying at South Hadley High, conveniently blamed the school for failing to fully apprehend and punish bullies, as though doing so would have solved the problem.
Numerous countries, such as Japan and Australia, have tackled bullying with even more gusto than the United States, yet both countries have experienced an intensification in bullying and are wringing their hands in frustration over this seemingly intractable problem. There is not one state or country in the world that has even come close to eliminating bullying from schools despite their intensive anti-bullying laws and interventions.
There is a very simple reason treating bullying like a crime doesn't work. Let's say you and I are kids in school and you are mean to me. Then I tell the teacher, who sends you to the principal, who in turn punishes you for bullying me. Is that going to make you want to be nice to me? You will hate me and want to beat me up after school! You will enlist all your friends against me! You will make me look like scum on FaceBook and MySpace! You will look for an opportunity to tell on me and get me in trouble with the school! So subsequent incidents-and probably worse ones-are unwittingly set into motion by the school.
Parents universally insist that schools need to punish students for bullying each other. Meanwhile, there is far more bullying going on among siblings at home than among students in school, and the more the parents punish their children for tormenting each other, the more frequently and viciously their kids fight. Parents, who can't force their own couple of kids to stop bullying each other, insist that the school force hundreds or thousands of children to stop bullying each other.
If kids harm our children, whom should we take to court? The offending kids. But unless we are willing to be prosecuted for failing to stop our own children from bullying each other at home, we have no business prosecuting schools for failing to eliminate bullying among students. How can schools be held legally responsible for failing to accomplish what even the world's most revered and highly paid bullying experts don't know how to do?