Every State Now Has An Anti-bullying Law – Now What?


On April 21, 2015 Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed an anti-bullying law which made his state the 50th state to have an anti-bullying law. The law, is nothing more than a statement that bullying is not allowed, ends a push that started before Columbine in 1999 to establish laws and policies on bullying across the United States. With every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the other territories now possessing a bullying law, what’s next for the fight against bullying?

It is first critical to ask, what is the purpose of these laws to begin with? The vast majority of the laws, have but one major requirement – that all schools adopt a bullying prevention policy. Without any mechanism to ensure schools and districts actually follow through with their obligations, these anti-bullying laws do essentially nothing to help prevent bullying. In fact, there has been no improvement in the rates of bullying between 2005 and 2011, a period in which a significant number of new or revised state bullying laws were enacted. The goal of state anti-bullying laws was not and is not to actually prevent bullying. Instead, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a 2010 memo to Governors and School State School Officers, anti-bullying laws and policies serve to “send a message that all incidents of bullying must be addressed immediately and effectively, and such behavior will not be tolerated.” In other words, the purpose of anti-bullying laws is to demonstrate that the legislature recognizes bullying as something that must be addressed, but the laws do not and cannot serve as the mechanism by which to actually address the behavior. Instead, as Secretary Duncan wrote, “when responding to bullying incidents, schools and districts should remember that maintenance of a safe and equitable learning environment for all students, including both victims and perpetrators of bullying, often requires a more comprehensive approach.”

Some states have sought to overcome this limitation by expanding the scopes of their anti-bullying laws to not only require schools to have a policy, but also to criminalize bullying for those who engage in the behavior. Criminalizing bullying can have serious, negative consequences for all involved, from further restricting reporting of the behavior to exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline. Criminalization of bullying behaviors is not an effective solution, in part, because we still disagree about the definition of bullying. In fact, no two definitions contained in the fifty-four state and territory laws now enacted are exactly the same. Just as now all states have differing laws addressing bullying, in 1973, so too did all states have differing laws addressing child abuse. It seems as though the stage is primed for Congress to provide a federal definition of bullying, much as it did in 1973 for child abuse. Passing a law is not enough; resources must be provided to help schools understand both the letter of the law (what they’re required to do) as well as the spirit of the law (what they need to do to actually prevent bullying). Senators must consider if their goal in adding bullying to the ESEA is to simply “send a message that bullying must be addressed” or if their goal is to actually see reductions in bullying.

Thanks to Deborah Temkin, Program Area Director, Education Research