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Does Antibullyism Help or Hurt Kids at Risk?

Psychologists should consider the potential harms of anti-bullying policies.

NBC News/Fair Use
Source: NBC News/Fair Use

As a result of anti-bullying laws, schools are now routinely being sued for the suicide deaths of bullied kids. Another lawsuit has just made national news, this time against a school in New Jersey, which has prided itself on having the toughest anti-bullying law in the country. According to the lawsuit, Tristan Peterson, age 12, killed himself in 2017 because he was “bullied and harassed repeatedly by his classmates” at Woodruff Middle School in Bridgeton after he came out as gay.

As reported by NBC News,

The suit accuses the school, the Upper Deerfield School District and staff of negligence, and of violating the state's discrimination law, wrongful death, and creating a hostile learning environment. Several district staff and the state of New Jersey are also named in the suit, which seeks damages and a jury trial.

Who or what is responsible for this tragic outcome? One answer provided by antibullyism, as reflected in the lawsuit, is his school and the governmental bodies that oversee it.

Psychology is a branch of science. The purpose of science is to figure out how nature works and to use that knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. The most basic tool of science is questioning. We don’t just assume that our inventions and interventions will yield only positive results. As that magnificent old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Antibullyism is founded on the good intention of creating a society in which no one is made miserable by anyone else. Unfortunately, antibullyism has been a grand failure. After two full decades of antibullyism being championed by psychology, education, and law, bullying is considered a growing epidemic, the suicide rate among young children has been rising, and bullying lawsuits against schools for failing to make bullying stop are proliferating.

All systems of wisdom advise us to take personal responsibility for the results of our actions—at least when we reach adulthood. There is no exemption for researchers.

It is high time for researchers to ask why we have failed to conquer the bullying problem and to take responsibility for any harm caused by our policies.

If medical researchers were discovered to be promoting a drug despite knowing that their research finds it to be largely ineffective and potentially harmful, the researchers would get sued.

Yet many of the leading bullying researchers continue promoting the same policies year after year despite their research showing they are minimally effective and possibly counterproductive. Because Dan Olweus, the “father” of the psychological field of bullying, insisted that we fight for anti-bullying laws and because the legions of bullying researchers have heeded his call, they have created a situation in which schools get sued for the failure of the policies foisted upon them.

Suicides by bullied kids have been escalating during the very period that society has been legislating policies against bullying. We would be grievously irresponsible to ignore the possibility that anti-bullying policies have contributed to the rise in these suicides.

In recent decades, schools have been mandated to promote diversity, so they have been educating students from the youngest grades to recognize, accept, and appreciate the gamut of sexual preferences and gender identities. Additionally, because of schools' mandate to eliminate bullying, students have been bombarded with the messages that they have a right to attend school without being bullied and that bullying will not be tolerated.

Thus, Tristan likely felt encouraged to come out as gay. But like the rest of us, kids are titillated by the subject of sex, most are attracted to the members of the opposite sex, and unfortunately, some think of homosexuality as funny or weird. Thus, some kids in school made fun of Tristan. He naturally got upset by the taunting, not realizing that getting upset can actually fan the flames of taunting.

Tristan and his mother were also taught that they must inform the school about bullying. So that’s what they did. As the NBC article reports:

The boy [Tristan Peterson] and his mother complained multiple times about the bullying, but staff "failed to properly and/or prevent the abusive behavior," the suit claims, adding, "The defendants had a duty to provide for the safety and security of students.”

What the authorities failed to inform students and parents is that there is reason to doubt that schools can fulfill such a duty. Recent research finds that the kids who get bullied the most are those who inform the authorities the most.

Imagine that the adult authorities instruct you to be proud of your sexual orientation and that other kids are required to treat you with respect for it. Then you discover that you get repeatedly ridiculed for coming out. You trust the authorities' promise that they will solve your problem if you inform them, only to discover that they do not. You see no way out of your misery.

And how about the lawyers suing schools? Do they really believe in their accusations? But truth is not the concern of lawyers. Their aim is to represent their clients effectively. Scientists are not lawyers: Our goal is to find the truth no matter how politically incorrect the truth may be.

Unless we consider the hypothesis that the anti-bullying policies we promote may make matters worse for kids like Tristan, we may continue to anguish over the sky-high youth suicide rate.


Dan Olweus: Bullying in schools: facts and intervention

Kate Julian: Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?

Telling an Adult at School about Bullying: Subsequent Victimization and Internalizing Problems

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