How to fight bullies

Sunday, January 16, 2011; 7:55 PM

AWAVE OF legislation and proposed legislation in statehouses across the country has followed high-profile incidents of children being bullied, some to their deaths. These bills bring welcome attention to the problem and represent an implicit indictment of schools for failing to deal with it. Bullying has long been seen as a normal rite of growing up and not as the unacceptable abuse that it is. But while we applaud efforts to strengthen policies, we have to question the wisdom of a proposal in Virginia that would criminalize bullying.

Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is sponsoring a bill that would make egregious bullying a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The measure would define bullying as "recklessly or intentionally endangering the health or safety of a student by exposing the student repeatedly, and over time, to physical aggression or intimidation, whether through direct physical contact or through the use of information or communication technology, resulting in bodily injury or other harm to person or property." It would also give victims the right to sue those who have bullied them.

Bullying is best addressed in policies established by schools to deal with student conduct and in enforcement of existing laws that deal with assault, threats, menacing and intimidation. Mr. Ebbin's well-intentioned law was prompted by the case of a high school student in York County who committed suicide in May after suffering months of bullying at his school. Would another law have helped avert this tragedy? How much of a factor was indifference by the school or police? Virginia's existing anti-bullying law, which requires school systems to establish student codes of conduct, has been given high marks by Bully Police USA, a watchdog organization for bullied children that tracks state laws (the D.C. Council has anti-bullying legislation pending). Mr. Ebbin is not wrong to want to improve protections for children, but a better approach lies in a bill he is co-sponsoring with Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), which would require that teachers be trained in dealing with bullying, that they report incidents to school authorities and that steps be taken when a student is being mistreated.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company