Across the United States and around the world, the anti-bullying movement has become a rallying force. From celebrities telling gay teens that “It Gets Better” to the world-wide attention paid to a bullying incident in Australia captured on video, the problem of bullying in schools has garnered heightened media attention and is being tackled with increasingly stronger laws by communities.
There are anti-bullying laws of varying strength in at least 40 states. Last week, New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights
, the nation’s toughest anti-bullying state law yet; it received both cheers
. The law includes a requirement that teachers and administrators report incidents of bullying to the police, and has raised questions about who should be held accountable for protecting students. It has also sparked debate around the potential implications of criminalizing bullying, as well as how schools are going to pay for anti-bullying programs, given already-slashed budgets and overworked teachers.
“We should call bullying what it actually is — social violence,” said Erin Weed
, founder of Girls Fight Back
, an organization that provides empowerment and self-defense workshops at schools and college campuses around the country.
The increasing numbers
of students that have committed suicide
following repeated harassment from peers are tragic reminders of the urgency of keeping schools safe. And it’s a particularly difficult challenge now that student life no longer stops when the bell rings. With social media and the Internet, the potential for bullying to become a brutal and devastating form of harassment is bigger than ever.
“It’s a 24/7 problem that has never been seen before,” said Weed. “Everybody lives online now. One nasty rumor posted online about you on Facebook can become a viral disaster.”
Last year, a freshman at Rutgers University
jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly taped him having a sexual encounter and posted the video online. (The New Jersey anti-bullying law, which also allows anyone to anonymously report bullies to the police, was proposed in direct response).
Students themselves are also responding collectively to bullying. Around the country, students from elementary school to college have hosted rallies
, protested bullying
with a day of silence, and stood together
in solidarity to demand safe school environments.
The need to end peer harassment is clear. But it isn’t clear how much change is actually happening. Are laws that vigilantly punish bullies like the Anti-bullying Bill of Rights exactly what we need — or putting us down the wrong path? Resolving a case of bullying will take more than just a hotline. It will take squadrons of counselors, legal teams, and school administrators. So what are the most effective ways to spend school districts’ already-limited resources?
While I believe that holding institutions accountable for addressing student harassment is needed, I’d also like to propose a shift in focus: To remain sustainable, the anti-bullying movement needs to grow into a pro-empathy movement.
No-tolerance policies for bullying are certainly merited, but one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To prevent bullying in the first place, we need to think more about creating a culture of empathy in schools.
I’m fascinated by Ashoka’s new Empathy Initiative
, which is exploring the effects of including empathy in childhood education. In a recent interview
, founder Bill Drayton explained why empathy is a crucial skill to develop in the world today:
“In 1900, 97 percent of the world’s children were growing up in very small, isolated villages. They probably never went beyond five miles to learn. But that world is gone. Every year, the proportion of your life that is governed by your role is diminishing. Roles have conflicts; roles have been changing. We depend on the people around us to bring together the correct skills to guide us; choose actions that would be helpful.
“These are very complicated skills. This is a world where you need a higher form of empathy, where you observe yourself, watch other people around you, and then you find yourself understanding and interacting with various combinations of people. So this goes to say that the system around you is changing. You need to contribute to the system and avoid doing damage. So, you require a very sophisticated set of skills.”
If we work to create an environment of safety in schools and teach students the social skills to interact in ways that allow empathy to thrive, we may be able to stop bullying while simultaneously helping students grow into the world’s future leaders.
What do you think about anti-bullying programs in schools? Do you have an anti-bullying program in your school or community? Is the problem getting better? Do you think empathy can be nurtured in schools?