Thursday, 20 September 2012
New laws that are named after a person are usually bad ones. They are born of a marriage of reporters out to win a Pulitzer Prize and politicians out to win an election. Consequently they are invariably poorly thought out and over-reaching in their effect.
Such are the laws that have been given life during the current anti-bullying campaign. As of September 1st 2011, the state of New Jersey in the U.S. implemented exceptionally detailed and tough anti bullying legislation. New Jersey’s anti-bullying legislation was a political response to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a New Jersey college student who committed suicide shortly after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in his dorm room. Reflecting the bipartisan nature of the anti-bullying hysteria the bill was passed 73-1, with 5 abstentions, in the Assembly, and 30-0 in the Senate. It was signed into law by the Governor Chris Christie, a hero of right-wing Republicans.
Legislation has also been a reaction to the media hysteria concerning so-called cyber bullying. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old, was allegedly harassed into suicide by a friend’s mother. Because of a lack of laws to deal with horrible tragedies as this, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California wrote the bill, also known as the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. The Act provides that "Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
It has been pointed out that numerous free speech situations are potentially caught by this legislation. Some of the examples are "a blogger who ridicules a politician for his or her vote". Others include the use of "hostile language in an email to a company that provided a shoddy product" and the "use of the internet for a boycott intimidating a company".
Much of the problem with anti-bullying legislation flows from horrendously broad definitions. Bullying can include not inviting a hostile classmate to a birthday party since social "exclusion" is included in most definitions. The New Jersey law defines bullying as, among other things, creating a hostile educational environment "by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student." Quebec’s new bill states "bullying means any direct or indirect behaviour, comment, act or gesture, including through the use of social media, intended to injure, hurt, oppress, intimidate or ostracize." In other words eye-rolling and rumour-spreading are included. The Ontario law defines bullying as a "real or perceived power imbalance."
A perceived power balance is illegal - now if that isn’t perceivably Kafkaesque! The Ontario government’s website states as follows: "Students may attain or maintain power over others in the school through real or perceived differences. Some areas of difference may be size, strength, age, intelligence, economic status, social status, solidarity of peer group, religion, ethnicity, disability, need for special education, sexual orientation, family circumstances, gender, and race." In other words a kid showing off how smart he is to another kid could be engaging in an illegal act.
The New Jersey law requires that every bullying complaint be investigated within a day of the complaint being lodged. An extensive report must be filled out for each such investigation. Similar compulsory reporting provisions are contained in Ontario’s anti-bullying legislation.
The New Jersey legislation demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies, increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes. There are apparently 18 pages of required components. Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an anti-bullying coordinator. This broadly defined bullying has almost been elevated in seriousness to pedophiliac sexual crimes.
So what kind of behaviour is usually involved in alleged bullying incidents? Dr. Bergacs, an assistant principal at a New Jersey High School, who investigates half a dozen complaints of bullying each month says "It’s gossip, innuendo, rumors — and people getting mad about it." An article (James Hill, Intentious) on the New Jersey legislation made the following apt description "In other words, petty childhood gossip and the kind of drama filled socializing that is typical of normal children and teenagers." The vast majority of cases being labeled as bullying are two quarreling children.
When legislation focuses on forcing the reporting of any and all so-called infractions, it allows children to bring a new tactic into their interpersonal battles. In typical schoolyard arguments, both participants will have contributed to the conflict but if one child is looking at a suspension for being a bully, it is only natural for him or her to accuse his or her accuser of the same thing. Soon every minor argument between students is descending into accusations of bullying and generating overwrought adult intervention and a vast amount of bureaucratic paperwork.
Is bullying lessened if kids are encouraged to consistently run to adults to resolve their disputes? Unlikely. The other kids will find new, subtler ways to ostracize them as snitches. On the other hand, adults beware. Any agent of authority in a kid’s life will quickly be given the bullying label - a 2006 Texas survey found half of all elementary teachers should be considered bullies.
Invariably the anti-bullying measures pull in the police as another whole set of children’s behavior is seriously criminalized. In New Jersey’s East Hanover district, the new partnership with Crimestoppers, a program of the Morris County sheriff’s office, directly involves law enforcement instead of resolving issues in the principals office. Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls or tips to its Web site, then forward the information to school and local police officials. Sooner or later a six year old will be hauled away to the local police station to be questioned because he or she said something nasty to another six year old.
Ontario recently introduced legislation sets suspensions and expulsions for students caught bullying. In Quebec, even private schools can be fined for not complying with the legislation. In Ontario principals are advised to contact police in violent cases and pursue criminal charges. Although these bills include constructive measures such as counseling for victims and prevention programs for all students, they are grounded in a heavy handed punitive mentality. Unfortunately the anti-bullying campaigns carried on by the media are very effective with two-thirds of those polled in a recent Canadian survey agreeing that bullying should be punishable by law even if there is no physical violence. It has been noted that means that the majority of Canadians think that children should be arrested for meanness.
New York-based school psychologist Israel Kalman is an often solitary opponent to the current anti-bullying movement and its focus on a legalistic approach. "Anti-bullying laws can’t possibly work," he warns in an interview. "Teaching that every incident of bullying is intolerable and requiring schools to investigate each alleged act simply increases the hostility and escalates the bullying," he observes. "Let’s face it, children aren’t angels."
Legislators often speak about creating a new culture where bullying is no longer tolerated. But what kind of culture are we really creating? Is it going to be a culture where parents do not have birthday parties for their kids because they are afraid of being labeled as bullies by the parents (or the teachers) of the kids who do not get invited? Is it going to be a culture where children are constantly watched over to ensure that all their interactions are socially correct? Is it going to be a culture where children are criminalized at a young age because they give the "wrong" look to another kid? Before long there will invariably be cameras in every playground so that a nervous Big Brother or Big Sister sitting in the principal’s office can ensure that he or she is not violating the law. Even some of the most authoritarian societies that mankind has known have at least exempted young children from this kind of control.
Posted by Juricana at 19:02