Commentary
10:56 am
Thu November 3, 2011

The Bullying Wars: What's Up With the Anti-Bullying Bill?

Michigan is one of only a handful of states without a specific law making school bullying a crime. The governor wants an anti-bullying law. Various other groups do too.

This is, make no mistake, a serious issue. According to the Senate Fiscal agency, bullying has accounted for at least ten suicides in the last ten years, plus more that were likely unreported.

So yesterday, the state senate passed such a law.

But nobody, absolutely nobody, is celebrating.

Democrats are howling that the bill is worse than no law. Republicans say that Democrats are only interested in making points with gays and other “special interest” groups.

The father of the boy for whom the law is named hates the bill; and thinks it creates a license for kids to beat each other up based on their religious beliefs.

Everybody is attacking everyone else, and what came into my head was -- Gee, doesn‘t this create a great example for our kids. I’ll bet any mommy and daddy paying attention to this farce are thinking, “Gosh, I hope someday little Susie and little Billy will grow up to be noble statesmen just like our legislators.” Not.

The truth of the matter is that what’s going on here isn’t really about different theories of how to stop bullying; it is about identity politics and, specifically, scoring partisan points.

Democrats may genuinely believe that gay children and black children and children from minority religious traditions need to be specifically singled out for protection.

However, they also feel they need to show those constituencies that they have done something for them. Republicans may honestly think that the best approach is one that covers everybody equally.

But they also want to please those voters who are dead set against any protection for gays, and don’t want to help minorities either. To a large extent, yesterday’s debate on this issue was purely for show. Whether this bill now sails through the house and is signed by the governor is unclear, but if they stay united, Republicans can pass this and any other bills they want to.

And if it becomes law in its present form will this bill be a good thing or a bad thing? My guess is that it will be absolutely meaningless. Defenders can say that this bill does take the important first step of requiring every school to have an anti-bullying policy.

If it turns out that it needs to be made tougher, they argue that then future legislatures could always amend it.

On the other hand, not only does this bill not mention specific groups, it contains no requirement that school districts report bullying incidents or what they did about them. Nor, according to a nonpartisan analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency, does it include any provisions for enforcement, staff training, or spell out any consequences. Nor can school administrators be punished if they fail to take action against bullies.

So this bill won’t save anybody, period. In any event, I doubt if any schoolyard bully ever paused before beating someone up to ask himself, 'is this legal under state law?'

We can stop bullying, if we really want to. And what’s going on now makes it clear that we don’t want to, at least not badly enough.