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The political backlash of bullying prevention

Optimist that I am, I always believed that even though our society is so politically divided, there were certain issues that we could all rally around as human beings, such as preventing violence against children and youth. But even this seemingly benign, universally acceptable issue is drawing criticism.

This month's National Bullying Prevention month has rallied communities to raise awareness of bullying prevention through events, activities, outreach and education with 2,628 schools nationally and internationally celebrating one activity called "Mix it Up at Lunch Day," started by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 

Children in participating schools are encouraged to have lunch Oct. 30 and hang out with someone they don't normally speak to. The intention is to break up social cliques to prevent harassment and intimidation of anyone who is typically excluded or seen as different.

The American Family Association, however, has seen this project as a "diversity program designed specifically by SPLC to establish the acceptance of homosexuality in public schools," and has discouraged families from allowing their children to attend school that day. Although some schools have elected to cancel the event as a result, Maricopa County still has 54 schools participating posting one of the highest numbers in the country.

Still, this characterization of bullying prevention has impacted Arizona's ability to strengthen its current anti-bullying law (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §15-341). Arizona is one of only three states that include prohibitions against bullying without specifically defining the behavior that is prohibited nor does it offer a model policy to draw from. The law places full responsibility on local school districts to craft their own local policies and definitions, creating inconsistency among districts as to what constitutes bullying and who should be protected.

Last year, anti-bullying advocates tried to remedy this by introducing legislation, SB 1462, which would create a definition and would mandate bullying prevention training in all public and charter schools. The bill was ultimately killed when, similar to the argument of the American Family Association, the Center for Arizona Policy felt that the mandated training would provide an avenue into schools by groups that promoted the gay lifestyle. Supporters of the bill felt that this was an improper response and was taking focus away from the goal of keeping all Arizona children and youth safe.

Therefore, violence on youth in Arizona schools has remained largely unchanged since the 2005 anti-bullying legislation was passed and is consistently higher than most states:

  • In 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that Arizona's percentages have remained high for 9th – 12th graders in public school who in the previous 12 months have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property (9.3 percent); or have been in a physical fight at least one time (35.9 percent).
  • The Arizona Youth Survey reports that in 2010, 29 percent of 9th – 12th graders and 39 percent of 8th graders were bullied or harassed at school one or more times in the last year.  (For additional data, see the 2011 Morrison Institute's "Sticks and Stones" report.)
  • These statistics adversely impact lesbian/bisexual/gay/transgender (LBGT) youth and children with disabilities, precipitating a large response by both LBGT and disability groups.
  • In 2007, the National School Survey reported that among 6th – 12th graders in Arizona that were LBGT, 82 percent were verbally harassed, 43 percent were physically harassed, and 22 percent were physically assaulted.
  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that students with disabilities experience bullying at higher rates across all grade levels than their peers that have no disability. In a recent survey, 63 percent of parents reported that their child with autism had been bullied, and 39 percent were bullied in the last month.

But, it's not all bad news. Arizona and the federal government have gotten tougher on cyberbullying. This past year Arizona passed a nationally recognized cyberbullying law that restricted harassment and intimidation through electronic communications. The Children's Internet Protection Act also has been strengthened by the FCC to require that schools receiving discount rates for Internet communications through E-rate provide cyberbullying awareness and response training to all students.

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Phoenix First Lady Nicole Stanton also has taken on bullying with her initiative "Stop Bullying AZ." This initiative kicked off with a Summit uniting 300 school officials to learn and share strategies to reduce bullying across the state, and has created a website that will provide a central repository for Arizona bullying prevention resources.

Nicole Stanton has also promised to re-introduce legislation similar to last year's to strengthen current bullying laws and training requirements in all Arizona schools. However, this legislation will not pass and violence among youth will not be reduced if the rhetoric and acceptance of bullying towards specific groups is not challenged.

Even if a group does not agree with a person's sexual orientation, political views, religion, ideology, or appearance, it is not legally or morally permissible to harass, intimidate and harm any individual.

Bullying prevention is not a gay issue, a minority issue, a disability issue or a political issue. Is a child protection issue, a human rights issue, and a goal that we should all support to make our schools and our children safer.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

McFadden is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute.

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1 comment on this story

Oct 25, 2012, 1:29 pm
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Based on my own time in school, I believe the best way to prevent bullying is to actually provide consequences to the bullies, and show future would-be bullies that if you choose to engage in this type of behavior then a price is going to have to be paid.

Before I took up fighting, I was bullied in school. Thinking back, I can’t remember a single time when any bully had to answer for what he did. Sure, I told the teachers what was going on for a while, but after it became clear they didn’t care I gave up on that route.

Once I started defending myself against the bullies, of course I was punished for doing so.

I really hope things are different for this generation.

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