The Corner

A Federal Response to Bullying in Public Schools?

On Friday, the U.S.Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing on peer-to-peer violence and bullying in public schools. The focus of the hearing was on the federal response to bullying directed at students on the basis of protected-class status. The commission will issue a report on the matter to the president and Congress in the next few months. Until then, just a few brief observations:

  • Several witnesses, including those from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, testified about the “bullying pandemic” sweeping the nation; the bullying “crisis”; the “alarming increase” in bullying. There may, in fact, be an increase in bullying in public schools (I tend to think there has been an increase). But when I asked the witnesses for data in support of the asserted increase (specifically, when  did the federal government or any other entity begin collecting data on bullying? What were the numbers then and what are the numbers now?), there was no response. That’s because, according to one expert, no such stats are kept. In essence, the argument for greater federal involvement and legislation in response to bullying is based on no reliable data as to whether the problem  has increased, decreased or stayed the same.

     

  • The federal officials failed to cite any examples of how the federal government has, thus far, addressed the problem of bullying better than officials at the state, local, or school level.

     

  • No precise definition of bullying was proffered at any time during the hearing.

     

  • During the seven hours of testimony, a range of issues were discussed: federal jurisdiction, First Amendment concerns, the adequacy or lack thereof of state responses, etc. There was, however, no discussion whatsoever of the role of parents in addressing the problem.

Student-on-student harassment is deplorable. Some of the testimony regarding actual instances of such conduct was both sickening and infuriating — especially those instances where school officials failed to take adequate, commonsense steps to prevent or stop harassment and violence. Clearly, more needs to be done. The commission’s report will address, however, whether greater federal involvement and legislation is the answer.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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