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Bully Pulpit

Are we taking our anti-bullying fervor too far?

A decade from now, we may look back at 2012 and wonder what took us so long to address bullying in school. But it's also possible that we may look back and wonder why parents and the media and lawmakers became so focused on something that is fundamentally a societal issue (and is, in some ways, already on the decline).

Bullying is a hot topic. In just the past few months, it has been the subject of a feature documentary (Bully) and a viral video series ("It Gets Better"). A book about the 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince is forthcoming. The heads of the nation's two largest teachers unions have made bullying a top priority.

President Obama endorsed proposals that would beef up protections for students bullied at school and enhance their ability to collect damages. Mitt Romney has had to apologize for bullying behavior during his prep school days. It's possible that bullying will be one of the few education-related issues that come up during the remainder of the campaign.

To be sure, bullying is pernicious. It negatively affects many students' lives, and schools are obligated to do their best to address it rather than dismiss it as a rite of passage, as some have done. More than a quarter of middle and high school students in America report being

bullied, and six percent report being cyberbullied. Anyone who's been bullied in even the mildest ways can tell you what a toxic and demoralizing experience it can be.

In response, states have taken steps to fortify anti-bullying statutes, and seven states now include penalties for cyberbullying off campus and after hours. Districts have created (or enhanced) "safe learning" policies, encouraging staff to watch for signs of bullying. Some parents have sued school districts and, in a few cases, sued other families for libel.

But the issue is so com­monly invoked that our understanding of it may be ­distorted or diluted. School violence, including face-to-face bullying, is actually on the decline nationally. Roughly 28 percent of students report being bullied on school grounds, a decline from 32 percent in previous surveys. This is despite increased attention to the issue, which would usually bring a spike in reported incidents.

Indeed, it is hard to tell whether cyberbullying is on the rise, or whether it's simply being reported more frequently due to public attention or a broader sense of what constitutes bullying.

The issue of legal responsibility is also complicated. In May, a judge tossed out a civil lawsuit filed against the Murray County School District, in Chatsworth, Georgia, by a family featured in Bully. Their son had committed suicide, but the bullying he was subject to appeared to have tapered off well before his death, and he had some underlying mental and emotional issues.

Educators and lawmakers have to find a balance between ignoring the problem and overreacting. Restricting or monitoring student interactions and access to social media, and criminalizing behavior that may not warrant prosecution, could send schools down the road toward ineffective policies that cause as many problems as they prevent-as well as burden educators with yet another problem that is up to society to address. 

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