New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law


Developing Effective Anti-Bullying Programs

In a previous blog entry, I explained that cyberbullying is a complex issue because it involves off-campus, online speech. Furthermore, when a school suspends a student for cyberbullying, First Amendment rights are implicated. When this happens, the student and her parents may sue the school district for constitutional violations. Likewise, a school district may be liable if it fails to protect a student from cyberbullying. In either case, school districts will see their wallets take a big hit.

Litigation is very expensive. Enacting new legislation that imposes stringent requirements on schools can still cost a chunk of taxpayer money and enormous administrative headaches. Just because the state government passes a new law does not mean that all will end well. In fact, litigation and new legislation may cause new problems and unintended consequences that many did not predict.

In my view, school districts at large haven’t quite figured out how to develop or implement effective anti-cyberbullying programs. Many schools typically show anti-bullying videos and have infrequent class discussions about the dangers of cyberbullying. Occasionally, a special guest will give a presentation. The problem is that this is not terribly effective–it doesn’t stick.

When I was in high school, I remember attending school assemblies where safety videos were screened at the auditorium. I don’t think that many students paid much attention to those videos. We just talked amongst ourselves, passed notes, or took a nap until the lights came back on. I don’t think much has changed over the years. Schools and various TV ads spend too much time teaching students to say “No” or “Think Before You Click.” How much of it really sticks?

Much more is needed than simple 30 second sound bytes.

For an anti-cyberbullying program to be effective, students must be active participants in the classroom. An effective anti-cyberbullying program is one in which students develop an excellent understanding of First Amendment issues and can engage in ethical (or philosophical) debates about free speech. Moreover, an effective anti-cyberbullying program teaches students can clearly define “parody,” “satire,” and “hate speech.”

Children as young as 10 or 12 should be able to clearly define and distinguish “parody” from “hate speech.” A student in junior high is smart enough to understand basic free speech issues and should be able to engage in ethical debates about their right to free speech. High school students can continue expanding their knowledge of free speech issues in History, English, or Social Studies classes. Lawyers who practice First Amendment should be invited to give presentations on a regular basis. State and federal judges may also be willing to talk to students.

If this sounds impossible or unrealistic, it shouldn’t be. One need not be a lawyer to define “hate speech”; one need not attend law school to read case summaries or debate First Amendment issues. There are books about cyberbullying and First Amendment issues that cater to youngsters. One interesting book written by a judge for junior and high school students is Teen Cyberbullying Investigated. You can read a sample chapter here to get an idea of what it looks like.

Finally, schools should offer students the opportunity to exercise their knowledge of First Amendment issues and show their creativity to combat cyberbullying in innovative ways. For example, students can compete with other schools and form teams to debate free speech and cyberbullying. Or perhaps create a Facebook page or website about cyberbullying. Or make a film and post it on YouTube. The possibilities are endless–and these things will have a lot more impact than watching 30 second ads screened at school auditoriums.

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    There are 4 comments. Add Yours.


    Nice article Matthew. I am really concerned for the victims of bullying. I am heartbroken that many of them suffer from hate speech and it really destroys their confidence. At the same time, I am deeply concerned that students will lose their first amendment rights with these new anti-bully laws. We should have the freedom to hold negative opinions and vocalize those opinions. This is America — and we are free to think and say what we want. That is a core value.

    The answer to hate speech is MORE speech that is uplifting and good. You don’t take away speech. You increase it and trust that good will overpower evil.

    The answer to help victims of bullying is not to punish anyone who hurts their feelings — but to build confidence and resiliency among those students who are hurt. I have seen students become bully proof because they don’t allow negative words to bring them down.

    Good article.

      Matthew Stoloff

      Thanks, Brooks, for chiming in. I agree that limiting free speech to address bullying is problematic. I think there are far more effective ways of addressing bullying than limiting free speech, and rather than limiting free speech, I hope that school boards and school personnel will develop and implement alternative methods of addressing bullying issues.

      You have brought an interesting perspective to this discussion: that school personnel should help build confidence and resiliency among those who have been bullied. It’s an interesting idea, though I would suggest we also teach students that words can be very powerful and inflict enormous pain. If school personnel looks at this issue from both sides, then maybe bullying will be less of a problem than it is today.

      Thanks for your comments!

    Kevin E

    Matthew, good comments.

    The issue of “free speech” is very important for everyone, but yes, there is a line where speech is expressed as a means to intentionally hurt another and in a way maim their self confidence. Personally, I don’t think it is just a free speech issue at all with schools not wanting to extend their reach beyond their own walls, but one of “how do we handle it?” Schools took the position early on that what happens outside of school (physical/verbal) is not their concern, because it would be very difficult to work through the process. Now technology has come and blown those doors off the hinges, and schools are worse off than they were five to seven years ago. And they are still lost.

    I agree with you that the only way to actually combat what is happening within our schools is to activate the students in the change process. The students are ready but again some adults are not willing to take the “leap of faith” it will require to move things forward. Open and honest discussion about the issues the kids are facing every day is something adults really don’t want to hear nor do many schools want to talk about (airing f dirty laundry).

    I am one of those people who travel to schools with a very personal story, but I always ask the schools, “What will you do after I am gone?” I can come in and motivate them, but the teachers and the admins have to perpetuate the change. Both those being bullied and the bullies need to be better educated about the dangers and the social problems that bullying can and does cause in our country. We all have the right say something about one another but not the right to promote continual hate and then in turn recruit others to do the same for the singular purpose of intimidating another individual who cannot defend him- or herself. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

    It goes beyond “free speech” — it is about returning to “respect.”

    Thanks for the discussion.

      Matthew Stoloff

      You ask excellent questions and raise good points.

      Why don’t more adults and school administrators involve the students in the process of change? Why do adults tend to be reluctant in taking that “leap of faith” as you put it? What is it that prevents many adults from initiating and engaging in frank and honest discussion? These are questions I am not even sure I can answer.

      Fifty years ago, parents sometimes talked about the “birds and the bees.” That has changed significantly in the last 25 years; teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are part of the reasons why we are not so vague when it comes to the subject of sex. Likewise, I think in a decade or so, the youngsters of today will be far better in engaging the students of tomorrow. In the meanwhile, we must do what we can to enlighten school personnel and teachers, help them see things from the perspective of youngsters, remind them of children like Matt Epling, and help them understand why it’s important to enable students to become active participants in the classroom as opposed to passive robots. The school environment is (or should be) a microcosm of a larger society outside the school building.

      Respect — now there’s a word I haven’t really heard much of lately. All this talk about bullying raises questions about criminal law, constitutional law, electronic communications law, and privacy law. In the legal world of bullying, the word “respect” is somehow absent.

      Thank you for your comments and for your important work in motivating school personnel to involve students and be proactive in addressing bullying. Matt’s story is very important — and one that schools need to be reminded again and again. I am disappointed that Matt’s Law has not yet been passed into law, but I am hopeful that it will see the light of day before too long.

      Thank you again.