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The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Defining—and Dealing With—Bullying

Bullying may be in the spotlight, but policy makers struggle to address it

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tate Sen. Nicole LeFavour spent the last day of the 2010 legislative session pounding the marble, going from office to office to meet with members of the House and pleading for a hearing on SB 1105, her bill to address bullying in schools. Much to her dismay, it didn't happen.

The bill suffocated in a desk drawer, unheard.

It was an odd fate, considering the massive global backlash against bullying in the last year. It was an even odder fate for a bill that, in a year of bitter partisanship, had nearly unanimous support from both parties in committees and had sailed easily through Idaho's Senate in a 32-3 vote.

"There were a couple of people in the House who said they were seeing a lot of ghosts in the bill," said LeFavour. "Imagining it would cause things it would never cause. Someone said that saying a bad thing about a gay person might become a misdemeanor."

Though LeFavour said Rep. Bob Nonini wouldn't give a reason why the bill wasn't put on the calendar, she believes it was ultimately a victim of politics, buried under issues like federal health-care reform and open primaries.

"It had the votes to pass," said LeFavour. "I don't think you're going to find a person in there who's going to say there isn't a need for the bill."

That need is illustrated by a 2009 survey of Boise State freshman from Idaho high schools by the Safe Schools Coalition. The report, which measured the perceptions of LGBT harassment and discrimination, found that 87 percent of self-identified heterosexual students and 92 percent of self-identified LGBT students had witnessed bullying, 36 percent of heterosexual students and 25 percent of LGBT students witnessing it often or very often.

Aside from the immediate safety concerns, being bullied can cause emotional problems that last decades and affect everything from grades and graduation prospects to marital and job success.

A study published in the March 1998 edition of the medical journal Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found a significant connection between migraines in youth and the stress of being bullied. And that's nothing compared to the recent rash of high-profile suicides by teens bullied for their sexuality, or events like school shootings, which often have roots in bullying.

But the bill--which would have required schools to enact and enforce a bullying policy, keep and report data to the state and make a third bullying offense an infraction to be dealt with by a judge--wouldn't have stopped bullying anyhow.

At least Matt McCarter, program coordinator for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Coalition in the Idaho Department of Education, a supporter of the bill, didn't think so.

"The question isn't can we stop bullying," said McCarter. "The question is can we do better?" He thinks we can. But to do so, McCarter said the focus needs to be not only on retributive justice against bullies, or on comforting the afflicted, but on improving the overall school climate, something SB 1105 didn't directly address.

The two biggest changes the bill would have made would have been to ramp up penalties, making a third bullying offense a criminal infraction, and to mandate that schools collect data. That data could have been used to more effectively craft policies to address both immediate risks and issues of overall school climate.

"If we don't have clean, accurate, valid data, we don't even know where to point to find the problem," he said.

Though the bill wasn't enough, McCarter still saw it as a crucial first step and a giant coup for a state that doesn't mandate data be collected on hate crimes.

"When I wrote the bill, I had been at a number of conferences on bullying," said LeFavour. "The U.S. Department of Education had folks who would really talk about what was most effective. They said you need training for teachers, you need categories, and you need strong principles."

But she said two of those are things that can't be legislated in Idaho.

"Members of the Senate told me it would go nowhere if classes (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) were listed," said LeFavour.

This caveat should be no surprise considering Idaho's perennial failure to amend its human-rights statute to include sexual orientation. But when those statutes are taken off the table, not much is left legislatively except the criminal penalties, something LeFavour said she only put in as a compromise with Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. John Goedde, a Coeur d'Alene Republican.

Well, those and the "second amendment solutions" Blackfoot Republican Rep. Jim Marriott advocated for third-graders facing bullying when he tried to amend the bill to protect a student's right to self-defense without penalty at a meeting of the House Education Committee on March 22.

That proposal was hotly debated, but hit the wall when Boise Democrat Rep. Sue Chew, who had remained silent until that point in the meeting, shared a personal story of the time she brought a knife to her elementary school because of continual harassment for being Asian.

However, the training, principles and improved school climates that McCarter and LeFavour talk about to address bullying aren't totally absent in Idaho. They're just not universal or mandated at a state level, meaning it's a combination of the luck of the draw and the amount of resources a district has available that determines the safety and climate of any given school.

And nowhere is that divide more clear than in the state's largest school district--Meridian.

A plaque hangs on the wall of Judy Herman's office at Andrus Elementary proclaiming her Counselor of the Year in the Meridian School District for the 1999-2000 school year.

"Strangely enough, I hated school as a kid," said Herman. "But I've been working in one for over 18 years now."

Herman said the massacre at Columbine High School changed her.

"I was appalled that something like that could happen in a public school," she said. "So I started to research bullies, because those boys had been bullied."

But what Herman discovered was that there wasn't much on the subject. Even the academic data seemed to stick to the age-old paradigm that bullying was just a part of growing up. After reading several bad books and discarding bad course materials, Herman decided to create her own program: Bullyproofing.

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