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Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761

Daniel Weintraub

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Consumer Reports

We don't need new laws to prevent bullying -- NOW comes the law to prevent bullying.

Fresh off the Santana High School shooting, in which the alleged shooter might have been the victim of schoolyard taunts, a California state Assembly committee today will consider a bill meant to force kids to get along.

Assembly Bill 79, by Assemblywoman Sally Havice, D-Cerritos, is as wrongheaded as it is well-intentioned. The bill would require every school in California to add a policy "for the prevention of bullying" and a conflict-resolution program.

Not that bullying is not a problem. It may even have been what sent Charles Andrew Williams over the edge. I just don't think we need a new law to prevent it. And the law Havice proposes would only make the problem worse.

If we have an epidemic of bullies in the schools today, it is not because children have suddenly become more evil. It's because adults have forgotten how to keep order. Teachers, cowed by whiny parents or fearing for their lives, throw up their hands in frustration. In the rare case that reaches the principal, too often the response is tepid.

It starts at the earliest ages. A few years ago my son's class was plagued by a boy we might have called a bully. He took a football from my son and threw it on the schoolhouse roof. He abused people with vulgar language and racial slurs. He picked fights. All the children and many of the parents who encountered this kid knew he was trouble.

But the school authorities, rather than simply disciplining the boy for what he did, wanted to work things out. They referred one fourth-grade victim to a peer mediation program. Another time, the bully and his victim were encouraged to resolve the conflict through negotiation.

The problem with this approach is that it blurs the notion of right and wrong. The abuser and the abused are treated equally - theirs is simply a problem to "resolve." The bully figures there's no real consequence for his behavior, other than having to listen to a clueless adult blather on about conflict resolution. The victim sees there's nothing to be gained by complaining, except perhaps further abuse from the bully, who keeps getting away with it.

We can study bullying all we want, but it's neither new nor very complicated. Unfortunately, it's human nature for the strong to attack the weak, for the more aggressive among us to take advantage of those who are more passive. That's why, in a civilized society, we have rules to keep things more or less in order. School is one place we begin to learn about these rules, and whether they mean anything.

Rather than write up plans and develop conflict resolution programs, we need to empower and encourage teachers and principals to enforce the rules we already have. Remove bullies from the classroom and the playing fields and, if necessary, from the school. Counsel them if you want, explore the roots of their insecurity if you have the time, but first, show them that there are consequences for their behavior. That will do them, and the rest of us, a big favor in the long run.

The saddest thing about Havice's anti-bullying bill is that it ignores Santana High School's own recent history. Bullying there got so bad in 1998 that parents asked for help from the school, police and city officials, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. The city received a $123,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department to research bullying and intimidation at the campus.

According to the newspaper, surveys were sent to students, parents and staff, and students were encouraged to report incidents. A special counselor talked to victims and offenders. Seventy-five students were taken on field trips to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and teachers attended training called a "World of Difference." The school, in short, could be a poster child for the anti-bullying movement.

But bullying persisted. Could this be because Santana spent too much time studying and talking about its bullies instead of taking action against them?

The moral ambivalence at the heart of "conflict resolution" seemed to pervade even the reaction to the shooting from those most affected by it. Two days after the incident, The Bee quoted one of the victims - 18-year-old Barry Gibson - saying he had "no opinion" about the boy who shot him.

"It's just a bad thing that happened," Gibson said, aping the soothing language used all too often by adults confronted with antisocial behavior.

Havice had a similar bill last year. It made it out of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis. Davis said school personnel, in the course of their normal responsibilities "should be aware of what children are doing, including bullying, without the need for specialized programs, training and counseling." Very well said. If need be, the governor should say it again.

Daniel Weintraub is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS