The Corner

Progressives Like Hillary Clinton Make a Federal Case Out of Everything—Even Schoolyard Bullying

Remember when children used to say, “Don’t make a federal case out of it”? In those days, even fourth graders understood that not every problem is best dealt with at the federal level.

But if Hillary Clinton gets her way, the federal government will soon be getting its fingers into all sorts of new pies — including schoolyard bullying. Clinton wants to enact strict new anti-bullying legislation. She also wants to spend $500 million to address the problem in addition to what the Obama administration is already spending. Yesteryear’s fourth graders — not to mention the architects of the Constitution’s system of limited federal powers — would be amazed.

Don’t get me wrong: My point is not that bullying in school is unimportant. Few things are as important as protecting children from bullies. But this is a problem best dealt with at the local level. Individual teachers, principals, parents and students, must be the heroes of the story, not federal bureaucrats. It is their battle to win or lose.

Dealing with bullies requires knowledge of particular personalities and situations. Their teachers know Emma and Jacob as individuals; they know Olivia looks like a sweetheart, but when she claims she has been treated badly she is usually making it up. The federal government has no such knowledge. When swarms of federal officials arrive to “help,” they usually will make things worse.

Once the U.S. Department of Education inserts itself into the process, schools must do two things. First, they must do the right thing in response to bullying. But second, they must be prepared to demonstrate to federal officials that they have done the right thing. Sadly, in the real world, the latter task begins to overshadow the former. This is in the nature of bureaucracy. Slowly, but unavoidably, the emphasis shifts from doing what the teachers believe is the right thing to documenting the steps they have taken to do what they think some federal official wants them to do. This is a shame. Their own judgment may be imperfect — just like every other human being’s on the Planet Earth — but it is better informed that the Department of Education’s and hence much more likely to be on target.

To get a sense of how federal anti-bullying policies are likely to play out, one need only remember the disastrous sexual-harassment policies of the last decade. In an effort to placate the U.S. Department of Education, many schools adopted zero-tolerance rules. Here are some of the results:

  • A seven-year-old saw another child hitting a fellow first-grader’s buttocks, so he did it too at Potomac View Elementary School in Woodbridge, Maryland. The principal called the police on him.
  • At Downey Elementary School in Brockton, Massachusetts, a 6-year-old was suspended for three days after he put two fingers inside a fellow first-grader’s waistband. He told his mother that the girl had touched him first.
  • A 6-year-old got suspended in Colorado for kissing a girl’s hand.
  • Three pre-schoolers, 16 kindergarteners, and 22 first graders were suspended for sexual harassment in the 2007–08 school year in Maryland schools.

These are children who can’t even spell “sexual harassment.” And there are many more examples like them. Will Clinton’s anti-bullying policy be better? I doubt it. The problem is the nature of distant bureaucracies.

Gail Heriot is a law professor at the University of San Diego and a Member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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