Education

New Research Is First Step To Finding Out If Anti-Bullying Legislation Actually Works

CREDIT: Craig Lassig, AP

Students from Blue Earth Middle School participate in National Bullying Prevention Month in Blue Earth, Minnesota.

New research shows that anti-bullying laws may help reduce bullying. A study published by JAMA Pediatrics included a study of 63,635 students who attended 9th through 12th grade in both public and private schools who were participating in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System study.

The study found that the odds were 24 percent lower that a child would report bullying and 20 percent lower odds that a child would report cyberbullying if they lived in a state with legislation that had at least one anti-bullying component identified by the U.S. Department of Education. The department issued guidance on anti-bullying laws in 2010 and released a report that identified 16 components of anti-bullying legislation that met its own recommendations in 2011.

One of the co-authors of the study, Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Ph.D., of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said that although there has been little research on the effectiveness of anti-bullying legislation, this study lays the groundwork for further research.

“About 15 years ago, we didn’t have any anti-bullying laws, but now we some form of anti-bullying legislation in all 50 states. But even though there’s been a lot of legislative activity there’s been surprisingly little if any research on whether the laws are actually effective,” Hatzenbuehler told ThinkProgress. “What we need to understand but don’t know is ‘Which components of these policies in which combinations are most effective at combating bullying?’ We don’t really have a gold standard for these laws.”

There were three components in particular that were aligned with lower odds of being bullied, including cyberbullying, which were a description of prohibited behaviors, statement of scope, and requirements for districts to develop and implement local policies. Hatzenbuehler said that although there is no way to know with certainty why those three components were associated with lower rates of bullying, they address practical concerns for how to implement these laws.

“You have to have a definition of bullying and you have to have a definition of scope, so that’s where if the law applies and asks, ‘Does it only apply on school grounds or does it also cover off campus behaviors?’” Hatzenbuehler said. “The third component is that these laws are made at the state level but they appear to be effective if they require local school districts to develop and implement their own local policies, because it enables school districts to create their own rules for their own local context.”

The average rate for reported bullying across the 25 states included in the study was 20 percent. The average rate for cyber-bullying was 16 percent. For both bullying and cyber-bullying, Alabama had the lowest rate at 14 percent and 12 percent respectively and South Dakota had the highest rate at almost 27 percent and 20 percent respectively. South Dakota was one of only two states studied that had zero anti-bullying components recommended by the department.

However, Hatzenbuehler notes that that they can’t test causal associations in this study and are only able to infer why the presence of anti-bullying polices is tied to lower rates of reported bullying.

“We’re establishing an association but we can’t say that the relationship is causal. There are several factors that we think are related to both the bullying laws and the behaviors and we’re showing that it remains robust despite controlling for those other risk factors, but always with this observational data, there are limitations,” Hatzenbuehler said. “We know these laws can be more or less effective depending on how they’re implemented — factors that facilitate or impede implementation.”

One of the key parts of the issue that the study wasn’t able to address was the difference between individual school districts’ implementation of anti-bullying laws. Dorothy Espelage, Gutgsell professor in the child development department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said implementation can be very challenging, especially since it is tough to fit anti-bullying programs into professional development.

“It’s a huge issue — competing for instructional time for professional development. There’s also this sense of ‘Well, we trained on that.’ Well you need to train on it again … There’s new staff and teachers coming in,” Espelage said. “I recognize that teachers are overwhelmed and they may not feel supported by the administration or parents, but the reality is that we know students who feel safer in the schools will be more academically engaged.”

Studies have shown that bullying leads to an increased risk of depression and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A 2013 study published in JAMA Psychiatry also found that the effects of bullying last well into adulthood. Victims of bullying were more likely to have depressive disorders, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety, and people who were both victims and bullies had worse problems with suicidal thoughts and were more likely to have various kinds of depressive and anxiety disorders. LGBT students in particular experience harassment at school, with 74 percent of LGBT students being verbally harassed and 36.2 being physically harassed because of their sexual orientation, according to a 2013 Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network survey.

Although attitudes have changed in recent years, Espelage still encounters a mentality from parents that bullying will build character or that it’s simply a matter of kids being kids.

“I think there still are parents and teachers who believe that it does build character and that if we intervene on all of these incidents, we’re not preparing these kids for real life so I still hear that,” Espelage said. “But I think studies make clear that if you’re chronically victimized as a kid you’re going to have an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, and you’re more likely to be on the poverty level. That makes sense to me, because if you are having a hard time at school, and let’s say you’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and you drop out of school, your career trajectory instantly changes.”