Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bullying: How to define it in state policy?

The debate in Michigan over defining "bullying" in legislation has reached national attention, as a revision to language on the victim attributes that might lead to bullying would permit actions reflecting "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction", according to a Detroit Free Press article.

While it's true that anti-bullying policies need to provide for a state or local definition of bullying--we can't prohibit what is not defined--developing a list of characteristics that may lead to bullying is not the only way to get there. Below are other approaches states have taken:
  • Leaving the "particular characteristics" to model state policy or related local policies: Some legislatures have decided to leave to someone else the business of defining the victim characteristics that may lead to bullying. Alabama, for example, requires the department's model policy prohibiting harassment, violence and threats of violence to include “A procedure for the development of a nonexhaustive list of the specific personal characteristics of a student which may often lead to harassment.” The statute adds that based on experience, local boards may add--but not remove--characteristics from this list.
  • Focusing on prohibited student actions rather than victim attributes: This is the approach many states have taken. Rather than trying to create even a nonexhaustive list of characteristics, legislation is silent on this point and instead describes the activities that constitute bullying, or environment that the bullying activity creates (i.e., gestures, or written, verbal or physical acts or threats that are severe, persistent or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment for a student; acts that interfere with the learning environment).
  • Leaving a role for local policy: In some cases, legislation defines prohibited student actions, then requires local boards to adopt local definitions of bullying that are at least as comprehensive as those adopted by the legislature (so local definitions may or may not get into the victim characteristics that may spur bullying). In other states, policy does not even define bullying, and leaves the definition of bullying entirely to local discretion.
  • Making clear that the list of victim characteristics in legislation is not comprehensive: Colorado statute, for example, states, “Bullying is prohibited against any student for any reason, including but not limited to any such behavior that is directed toward a student on the basis of his or her academic performance; or against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination upon any of the bases described in 22-32-109(1)(ll)(I)”.

Watch for more details in a forthcoming ECS report on this issue.

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