While the prevalence of school bullying may not have increased drastically in the last few years, awareness on the subject has grown, along with the severity of the issue.

Bullying has escalated with the rise of social media, where taunts are unencumbered by school boundaries. In today’s mediated world, bullied children must not only overcome obstacles at school, they also face cyberbullying at home — through texts, emails, and social media sites. Additionally, the larger the school, the more cyberbullying occurs.

The effects of bullying, whether in school or online, include decreased academic achievement, depression, and sometimes even drastic instances of school violence or suicide. When school bullying ends in tragedy, the efficacy of anti-bullying programs in schools is questioned.

In Memory of Rebecca Sedwick

One of the most publicized tragedies caused by bullying happened this September. On September 9, 2013, Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old girl living in Florida, committed suicide because she could no longer tolerate the harassment of her peers.

About a year ago, a group of Sedwick’s classmates began tormenting her at school and online. As months passed, more than 15 girls physically and verbally abused her. Her mother eventually enrolled Rebecca into a new school, but the harassment did not stop. Sedwick’s former classmates continued to bully her through social media.

In response, Sedwick’s mother, Tricia Norman, started a movement calling for the passage of new anti-bullying laws. Norman’s attorney, Matt Morgan, is working with Congress to create the first federal anti-bullying law in the United States, which would be titled The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013.

Morgan says:

“This law will mandate that schools have certain policies and procedures in place related to bullying. It is in response to the current climate of bullying in our school systems and society at large.”

While no federal anti-bullying laws currently exist, forty-nine states have passed their own legislation to create a safe and secure environment within their school systems. However, these state bills vary on policies, procedures, and even definitions of bullying.

Many of these laws are steeped in controversy, due to the administrative and financial burdens programs put on schools. Some school officials assert that anti-bullying methods required by state laws are not as effective as those previously implemented.

For instance, a Massachusetts anti-bullying bill, which was once applauded as a model law for other states, is now viewed as ineffective and lacking oversight due to insufficient resources.

Part of the bill’s failure is that nobody is being held responsible for implementing the policies and procedures as mandated and many school districts in Massachusetts are unable to adhere to the law because of the lack of funds. Kim Storey, a consultant with the Education Development Center, states:

“Although we have an anti-bullying law there is no one making sure it’s actually happening and happening effectively. It’s hard to require something without putting the funding behind it.”

Schools are also having trouble funding special bullying prevention programs, which forces school administrators to reallocate resources at the expense of other necessary school programs. Accountability is another problem — school districts are often unable to follow up with schools to ensure programs are properly implemented.

Discrepancy in State Laws

For the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013 to be effective, legislators will also have to conduct more research on what really works to protect students from bullying.

A 2011 report by the US Department of Education revealed a handful of states are not utilizing best practices to reduce bullying. Inefficient bullying laws neglect to include a clear and comprehensive definition of which types of behavior and what situations constitute bullying (also known as victim and bully characteristics).

The report found some state laws either have too broad or too specific a definition, and three out of the forty-six states that prohibit bullying do not even provide an explanation for what bullying actually means.

Legislators are concerned about the jurisdiction of these policies. Some schools limit control of these situations by covering only types of bullying that occur on school grounds. This means schools are overlooking the rise of cyberbullying, which still creates issues for students at school.

Moving Forward

The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013 needs to be passed, but it must find the most effective approach to prevent bullying without putting too much pressure on schools and faculty. Legislators should write a federal law encompassing the findings of the most recent studies in order to narrow down what actually works.

Definitions, funding, a framework for jurisdiction, and real accountability are needed for a nationwide anti-bullying program to succeed. Instead of each school district being forced to allocate their funds and stretch their administrative duties, the federal government should extend a helping hand in an effort to prevent more tragedies such as Rebecca Sedwick’s from happening again.