What Can Communities and Individuals Do About Bullying?
The problem of bullying has been addressed by legislature – but when it comes to ensuring safety of schoolchildren, individuals may have more power than the government
This is the second part of a two-article series exploring the link between school shootings and bullying. To read the first part, please click here.
In our last post, inspired by the heart-breaking events that unfolded on November 7th in Aztec, M.A, we set out to explore the link between recurring events of mass shootings in schools in the U.S. Since then, new information about the Aztec High School shooter has surfaced. It is now known that the killer was identified as a 21-year-old man named William Atchison and that he attended the Aztec High School but did not graduate, having moved out before his senior year. His motives have not yet been disclosed but reports suggest he might have been planning a mass shooting for a long time.
In the last post, we presented data showing that bullying is a widespread yet underreported problem. This post will explore measures that have been taken on the legislative level to address the problem. We will also investigate how effective these efforts have proven to be and what can individuals – like parents and educators – do to help the ensure the safety and well-being of schoolchildren.
Legislative Efforts to Tackle Bullying
What kind of steps have the legislators taken to protect schoolchildren from bullying? As of April 2015, all fifty states in the U.S. passed some form of school anti-bullying legislation. This kind of laws and regulations usually make it mandatory for all primary and secondary schools in a given state to have some form of anti-bullying policy in place. For example, the legislation adopted by the state of New Mexico requires all school boards to adopt policies and programs addressing bullying and cyberbullying. Such policies must include clear definitions of both forms of harassment and a strict and absolute prohibition of it. They must also cover, among other things, procedures for reporting, investigation and punitive actions against bullying and cyberbullying. The legislation also stipulates that all licensed school employees must complete training on how to recognize and counteract bullying and cyberbullying.
While this kind of legislation is welcome and necessary, in its current state it may be too little to effectively tackle the problem. The National School Safety and Security Services caution that “anti-bullying legislation, typically an unfunded mandate requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies but providing no financial resources to improve school climate and security, offer more political hype than substance for helping school administrators address the problem”. Furthermore, Ross Ellis, the founder and CEO of the STOMP Out Bullying organization and a national bullying and cyberbullying prevention expert, points out that very few of the anti-bullying laws include provisions for criminal sanctions against the bully.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do?
For the time being, parents and educators are the ones who really need to stand in the front lines of the war against bullying. And because the victims often suffer in silence, Ellis stresses the importance of adequate communication within the home and at school. For example, rather than interrogating, parents should assure their children of their love and make it clear to them that if they ever experience bullying, or witness another student being victimized, they should come and talk to the parent at any time. Teachers, on the other hand, should be vigilant and never reluctant to intervene. Both parties should also be able to spot any signs that a child may suffer from some kind of harassment. The following list presents some of the most common indicators that a child might be bullied or cyberbullied, as provided by stopbullying.gov website:
- Unexplainable injuries
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
Possible Legal Actions Against Bullies
It is important to recognize that, even though anti-bullying legislation has been adopted by all states, bullying is not illegal in the strict sense of the word. Thus, no criminal charges can be pressed against a bully. However, there are some legal options that parents may decide to explore and take if their child suffered physical or psychological damage as a result of being bullied. A civil lawsuit can be brought both against the bully as well as against the school district. For example, parents may state that the school has been negligent in fulfilling their duty to provide a safe environment and preventing bullying. However, as legal action against government entities tends to be complicated, the help and advice of an attorney experienced in similar cases will be absolutely necessary.
Whether bullying was one of the underlying factors involved in the shooting that took places in Aztec remains to be discovered. Right now, as important as to find answers to the questions about the causes and the motives, is for the community to come together, support one another, and heal. For the rest of New Mexico, it is a time to reflect whether we, as a society, do everything we can to prevent such tragedies from happening again.