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I was bullied in ninth grade. An older kid used to wait for me outside the cafeteria, and as I left he would taunt me in front of his friends—even push me around. It went on for most of the year. Although I was scared, I never told a soul. I felt awful that I couldn’t stop it on my own. I had never been bullied before and have rarely been bullied since. Those memories are so vivid to me, as if the bullying happened yesterday. Sadly, when I sit back and reflect on that entire year of my life, I can remember little else.

Bullying has captured the news headlines and the attention of legislators, educators and special interest advocates over the past three years at a greater rate. High-profile teen suicides have raised questions about the role bullying may have played in student deaths.

States have enacted new anti-bullying laws and parents are turning more often to principals to resolve bullying incidents occurring in school and in cyberspace.

candlelight vigil for Tyler Clementi

New Jersey knew it had a bullying problem after a 2009 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the percentage of students bullied in the state was one point higher than the national average. The momentum surrounding the antibullying movement in the state peaked last September when a Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after his roommate streamed a video of Clementi with another male student over the Internet. State legislators then moved quickly to pass the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights on Jan. 6, 2011, which will be effective Sept. 1.

Among the many challenges facing district leaders, student safety can be particularly difficult as new technologies allow for instant and constant communication. Recent tragic events, most notably the suicide of a Rutgers University student after an intimate sexual encounter was broadcast live via the Internet without his knowledge or permission, have brought increased attention and awareness of the danger of misuse of these technologies. But what can school districts do to protect students and staff without violating their constitutional rights?

The suicide of the 10th-grader sent shock waves through the middle school, but after a few months, almost all students and staff had moved on. The principal had heard through the grapevine that the parents blamed the school, but he had no idea that the school was going to be sued. The lawsuit specifically named the principal, coach and a teacher the parents believed had failed to stop the bullying of their child at school. The parents claimed that they had told school officials of their concerns about their child being victimized and that nothing had been done.

Karl Springer, superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public School District, recently found himself answering tough questions in the heavy glare of the media spotlight. The issue? Student bullying. "We don't escalate the situation by being macho," says Springer, also a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and a former Marine Corps captain.

Educators, school safety experts and anti-bullying advocates typically agree that bullying is a serious issue. They also agree that anti-bullying strategies should be an integral component of a school's safety plan. However, differences remain in how bullying should be addressed. Those differences have become magnified as bullying has become an increasingly politicized issue.


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Anti-Bullying Warning

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, said the department received 800 harassment complaints in the last year. The DOE warned schools in a letter Oct. 27 not to tolerate bullying.

The federal approach to school safety is shifting. This shift was first seen at the federal summit on bullying, held August 12, with the announcement of the Safe and Supportive Schools grant, a program under the Successful, Safe and Healthy Students program in the Blueprint for Reform that focuses on the overall environment of a school. Climate surveys are the cornerstone of the grant, as the Department of Education is—for the first time—asking students and families to provide feedback on their school atmosphere.