Anti-Bullying Legislation: Safer Schools through Legal Intervention

By Marizen Ramirez, PhD, MPH

Bullying is the most frequent form of peer victimization in schools, impacting about 10-25% of all children across the United States. The effects of bullying on children have been well-documented, from psychological and physical harm, poor academic performance, alcohol and drug use, and violent behaviors. In its most extreme form, relentless bullying has even driven some young people to suicide. The 2011 documentary, Bully, depicts the tragic stories of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, who, because of the chronic ridicule and physical harassment they faced, took their own lives.

Stories like Tyler’s and Ty’s have pushed bullying into the public eye, making it a public health issue of national importance. Across the country, efforts abound to prevent bullying and to help provide safe, welcoming environments for our children when they are at school.

Bullying prevention is being approached in a few different ways. National campaigns like Stop Bullying Now! work to increase awareness about bullying and strategies for prevention. Since its inception, the Stop Bullying Now! campaign has provided resources, including an online toolkit of educational materials, to schools and youth clubs throughout the country. Schools have also implemented a variety of anti-bullying curricula to improve school climate and prevent bullying behaviors in schools. Among these programs are the famous Olweus program developed in Norway in the 1980s, and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a program targeting the reduction in school-wide behavioral problems including bullying. The effectiveness of curricula, such as Olweus and PBIS, in reducing rates of bullying in American schools has yet to proven, however.

The most impressive and influential efforts for preventing bullying have been the passage of state anti-bullying legislation that require or recommend that schools engage in various anti-bullying practices, such as developing anti-bullying school policies, implementing anti-bullying curricula and creating procedures for reporting and investigating bullying incidents. In 1999, almost 15 years ago, Georgia was the first state to pass an anti-bullying law. Today, all states except for Montana have anti-bullying legislation. With new forms of bullying arising, i.e., cyber-bullying, legislative efforts have been underway to improve laws surrounding bullying in its new and current forms. Despite these efforts, little is known about the most effective anti-bullying policies and practices. Hence, schools are often left to carry out provisions without empirical evidence.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Public Health Law Research program, our team of public health and law researchers based at the University of Iowa has embarked on a mixed-methods study to help inform legislators, schools and constituents about the best evidence-based practices in bullying prevention. In February 2012, we began a series of case studies of middle schools throughout rural and urban Iowa to understand how Iowa schools have complied with legislative requirements and recommendations as well as the challenges to implementation, especially when there are no resources available to schools to carry out provisions of the law. We will furthermore evaluate the extent to which such practices have led to reduced bullying victimization by linking our qualitative case study data with quantitative data on bullying as reported by students and school officials.

It is imperative that public health professionals engage in discussions with law makers to provide a scientific basis for legislative decision-making relevant to public health and prevention. In the case of school bullying, laws may, indeed, lead to changes in behavior and safer school environments. Our job is to identify the most effective practices and policies that prevent bullying and its adverse impacts.

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