Schools everywhere have their fair share of bullies.  A Stanford University School of Medicine questionnaire in 2007 found that nine out of ten elementary students surveyed in grades three through six have been bullied by their peers.  And, this same study found that six out of ten children in this same group had been involved in some type of bullying activity themselves.  No one can really be certain if bullying continues at the same rate throughout the rest of the school grades; however it seems unlikely that most tormentors would change their conduct as they progress through middle school and high school.  In light of this, thirty-two states have passed anti-bullying laws to try to help protect children against violence in schools.

This sounds good, in theory; after all, what parent wouldn’t want her child to be safe from harm while in school?  But, there can be problems with some of these laws and school policies when they are actually put into practice. Some of these anti-bullying policies are very rigid.  Of course, in many aspects, they should be this way—for instance, there should be no wavering on a “no guns or knives” rule.  Weapons of any kind should never be allowed at any school at any time, and this should be clearly indicated in school policy and in a state anti-bullying law.

Other parts of the anti-bully law, however, need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.  For example, school officials are often terrified of anything that looks like it could possibly be a “death list” that is found in a student’s possession.  While such an item certainly needs to be examined carefully, it does not necessarily warrant immediate panic.  Why?  Quite simply because such a list of other students’ names could quite possibly be something else entirely—even if the paper is titled “Death List.”  Not convinced?  Perhaps you are unaware, but many kids play online multiplayer video games in which the objective is to hunt down and kill the other players.  So, the “death list” found in a student’s possession could be a listing of fellow video game players.  Of course, this may not be a common scenario; nonetheless, it is still possibility along with some other reason that has nothing to do with an actual death list to be carried out.  Therefore, it is important to ensure that officials need to evaluate any “death list” that is found with a cautious, objective eye before panicking by acting too hastily, or worse, releasing the list to authorities.

Also, I am sure that most everyone would agree that art is subjective.  But, when a drawing of a gun or another weapon is found in a child’s locker at school, here comes that immediate panic again.  Again, here is another instance where school officials need to look at each incident on an individual basis, because one student’s reason for drawing such an item could be entirely different from another student.  Yes, of course it is possible that a student who has violent intentions would draw such an object.  On the other hand, it is also possible that a student who plays video games would draw such an object.  Or perhaps a student who watches a great deal of spy or thriller movies would draw an item like that.  The point is school officials do not know, and they must evaluate.

Why not err on the side of caution and just act first and ask questions later?  Why not go ahead and have the school officials pull the student with the “death list” out of school for a few days or inform authorities so they can investigate the child?  Isn’t it a good idea to go ahead and take the student with the drawing of the guns out of school while school officials evaluate his drawing?  No.  This is the wrong thing to do, if we are to consider the welfare of the student.  Going ahead and pulling the student out of school draws attention to the situation, putting the student in a spotlight that he may not deserve. Going ahead and pulling the student out of school sends the message that he is guilty, regardless of what is decided in the end.  It is better to investigate the circumstances while keeping a careful (but discreet) watch on the student.

Anti-bullying laws and school policies that are in place to protect students from bullies have been developed by adults who mean well; however, it is important that these adults take a moment and step into the shoes of the students.  All of the students have rights, and all of the students need to be kept safe in our schools.  But, if the rules and regulations are too rigid, the schools may not be doing the best job they can to safeguard the welfare of its students.

Let us keep in mind that while having things in black and white makes it simpler for all of us, experience tells us that reality is more often cast in various shades of gray. There will be no sure-fire or foolproof method or measures, no magic formula for the problem. The risks and dangers will always be there. It is very easy and less complicated to just go by the letter of the law, regardless of circumstances or other factors, though you may end up doing harm rather than good.

We owe it to the kids to make that extra effort and provide that extra attention to evaluate, monitor and not rush into judgment so that their best interests and welfare are upheld. Difficult? Definitely, and things could go horribly wrong too if you don't get it right. But isn't that why we are adults and placed into positions of responsibility, to make those hard judgment calls and decisions?

Bullying needs to be stopped, but it must be done in a manner that is deliberate and thorough so that unintended consequences that could be detrimental to innocent parties are avoided.

A Bully Free Zone sign - School in Berea, OhioCredit: