Editorial: New anti-bullying law well intentioned, misguided

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As seen in the May 23 print edition

Bullying isn’t something adults should just let happen. That’s more or less a settled issue. Sure, there are those who still believe students being bullied should solve the problem themselves, but tragedies like the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick have made it abundantly clear that when bullying gets out of hand, adults need to intervene. A certain group of adults — the Carson, California, City Council — seems poised to do just that. Last week, the city council unanimously approved a bill that would make bullying a misdemeanor, not just an infraction. In other words, the ordinance would make bullying an offense punishable by, among other things, jail time. Today, the bill faces the city council for final approval. Regardless, the editorial board applauds the Carson City Council for its vehement opposition to bullying. However, we are apprehensive about its method of attack. We believe the ordinance goes too far.

While some forms of bullying certainly constitute criminal activity, Carson’s new law excessively broadens the range of offenses punishable by jail time. Putting more children through the justice system may prevent bullying, but it would also damage the children being incarcerated. Such an experience can traumatize even an adult; minors, who almost invariably lack judgment and who might come from troubled families, should not be punished so severely that they emerge from the process scarred and jaded. Yes, there are some bullies whose actions are clearly criminal, but the law already accounts for them. As for the rest, the solution doesn’t lie in punitive measures taken by a city.

Top-down measures like Carson’s ordinance will discourage bullying, but they can’t possibly hit upon the root of the problem. For that, intervention and counseling are far more effective. Rather than focusing on punishing bullies, Carson should — and does — create an environment where students can feel safe letting others know that they’re being bullied, and work with bullies and their victims to find the source of conflict. Counseling might not always work, but a skilled professional can usually lead the students to talk through their issues and uncover what’s going on underneath the surface. Often, the conflict is more complicated than expected; the line between bully and victim is sometimes unclear. One could hardly expect Carson’s ordinance to be able to address these sorts of cases.

It also cannot address another common source of bullying: the bully’s family. Oftentimes, bullies’ actions are a projection of their distress at home. The proposed law ignores this fact, punishing parents with fines for their children’s actions. While this measure might be effective for some families, for others it could be disastrous. Instead, Carson should seek to provide assistance to these families. Financial assistance might be a moral hazard, as it could incentivize bullying, but other forms of help — again, counseling comes to mind — could prove a worthwhile investment in the bully’s future.

Perhaps the law’s biggest failure is, ironically, its creation of a new type of bullying. Because it is so difficult to prove whether or not bullying has actually occurred, students will be able to abuse the law. Suddenly, kids will have new power, the power of the legal system, over each other. They’ll be able to order their peers around under the threat of accusation. This potential consequence could undermine the whole law.

Ultimately, we’re not worried about the law’s vague definition of bullying. We trust the courts to be able to determine what constitutes bullying and what doesn’t. We worry, though, that this law, despite its intentions, will do more harm than good. Children need to be treated more delicately than Carson’s ordinance allows. With its harsh and sometimes misguided punishments, the law can inflict some serious damage upon kids, their families and society. Some bullies need to be treated with the utmost severity, but almost always the situation is more complex than it seems. Carson’s ordinance can’t handle this complexity. Education, intervention and counseling can.

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