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Michigan Anti-Bullying Law: Can Legislation Stop Bullying?

Bullying: A National Disgrace

I have previously blogged about bullying in schools, cyber-bullying, and bullying in the workplace. Action needs to be taken now to put an end to this disgraceful practice. Michigan is attempting to do so.

At the time of this writing, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was expected to sign into law an anti-bullying bill. The bill is named "Matt's Safe School Law" for Matt Epling of East Lansing, Michigan who committed suicide after being bullied. Michigan is one of only a few states without a state law requiring anti-bullying policies in schools. Public schools will have six months from the new law's effective date to adopt anti-bullying policies.

Critics such as State Senator Glenn Anderson believe the bill will not be effective: “The reporting requirement is ridiculous, there's no review at the state level. It's one of the most questionable things in the bill. It's telling school districts to report to themselves and we'll turn our heads.” According to Anderson, the bill does not include many key components of what would make an effective anti-bullying law. Some of these would have specified potential consequences or remedial action for bullies and those who falsely accuse of bullying, required the reporting of statistics on bullying to the state to determine if the policies are effective, strengthened protections for students against cyber-bullying, and ensured that this bill does not preclude other legal action.

My question is whether anti-bullying legislation can stop the practice. My answer is NO. We’re talking about pre-teen and teen behavior that is motivated by emotion, not rational choice. You can’t legislate ethical behavior. It comes from within each one of us formed by a desire to do the right thing. No one is perfect but ethical people strive for that ideal. There is no way that most young kids have reached the stage of moral development where they fully understand the consequences of their actions and seek the moral high-ground in everything they do. All too many are influenced by the behavior of their peers and it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the bunch.

How ironic it is that the bill will become law at the same time that two recent suicides resulted from bullying. Two weeks ago 10-year old, fifth-grader, Ashlynn Conner was found dead. Conner’s mother said she heard her daughter on the phone with a friend talking about being teased. A half-hour later, Ashlynn’s 14-year-old sister found her hanging in her bedroom closet. Ashlynn had told her mother about the bullying earlier that day and asked if she could be home-schooled. Her mother reportedly told her they would speak to her school's principal at Ridge Farm Elementary about the problem. The Chicago Tribune reported that Ashlynn’s family said she had been teased by children at the school and in her neighborhood for several years. “When she started cheering for youth football, we’d gotten her hair cut in a bob,” Ashlynn’s grandmother, Lory Hackney said. “The kids started making fun of her then. They started calling her a boy.” Since then, she’d often been called fat or ugly, her family said.

Experts say that incidents of suicides among young children under the age of 14 are uncommon but do happen hundreds of times a year. That’s hundreds of times too many! Statistics from the Illinois Department of Health revealed that in 2009, three children in Illinois — one who was 10 and two aged 11 — killed themselves over a three-week period. The deaths weren’t related. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 200 children between the ages of 10 and 14 killed themselves each year between 1999 and 2005, the most recent year for which data is available. It’s safe to assume that number has doubled since then in line with the moral decay in our society.

Earlier this week Samantha West, of Chadbourn, N.C., said she found her daughter, Jasmine McClain, dead in her bedroom, apparently the victim of bullies at Chadbourn Elementary School. West said that other children teased her about her clothes or her shoes. She left the school for a while and dreaded having to return about a month ago. Chadbourn Police Chief Steven Shaw said her death was obviously suicide; he was about to close the case when he started checking  Facebook posts and other social media about Jasmine and her death. "Everyone that we have spoken to said there are little indicators -- not huge indications -- but small indications that she was not happy," Shaw said.

Statistics related to suicide and bullying are alarming.

  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims
  • 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide
  • Nearly 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bullying
  • 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying

What will it take to reverse the national disgrace of bullying in our society? I have already expressed my doubts that legislating against this practice will do any good. Still, laws need to be passed to have a chance of holding offenders accountable for their actions. If parents won’t teach kids about the wrongness of bullying, or kids won’t listen and learn, then the law has to step in and see that justice is done.  

Perhaps the answer will come from the kids themselves. At least three local girls took action in response to the Michigan bill banning bullying in schools. Earlier this year, three Battle Creek Central High School students launched an anti-bullying social media group called Now!NotNever after being bullied at their schools. Now!NotNever gained the attention of state Representative Kate Segal who invited the girls to speak on her radio program and sought their input on the legislation.

Bullying in schools, cyber-bullying, bullying in the workplace: What will it take to end this disgraceful practice that has taken the long-standing practice of teasing to a new low – off the charts low?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 2, 2011