Bullying Prevention Goes Beyond State Laws, Unions Say

By: - April 11, 2012 12:00 am

South Dakota last month became the 49th state to pass an anti-bullying law, but leaders of the country’s two largest teachers unions say that state action isn’t enough.

“It’s not just having a law; that isn’t sufficient,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “It’s really the behavior of adults and other students.” His union, along with the American Federation of Teachers, hosted an advance screening Tuesday (April 10) in Washington, D.C., of the controversial documentary “Bully.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, says talk isn’t enough. “The safety of children is as important as test scores,” she said. “We need to put resources into those things.”

The issue of bullying has attracted national attention in recent years. Last year, President Barack Obama convened the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. While there is no federal anti-bullying law, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested that bullying could violate the Civil Rights Act.  

Four states, including South Dakota, have passed anti-bullying legislation for the first time in the past year, leaving Montana as the only state without a law. But those moves haven’t always been without controversy. When Michigan’s legislature considered anti-bullying legislation this past December, it attracted national attention for an amendment introduced in the state Senate that would have allowed exemptions from the anti-bullying law for religious statements that could be construed as bullying. The bill was ultimately passed without the amendment, but an attempt to strengthen Arizona’s anti-bullying law was killed in part due to the heavy lobbying of the Center for Arizona Policy, a Christian family-values group, which said the legislation was being driven by gay and lesbian advocates.

Only 14 of the 49 states with anti-bullying laws currently have restrictions against cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, which tracks the issue. The issue of cyberbullying has been more in the news after the 2010 suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, whose roommate Dharun Ravi, was convicted of a hate crime for using a Web cam to spy on Clementi, while Clementi had a sexual encounter with another man. 

The documentary “Bully” has not been without its own controversy. The Weinstein Company, which produced the film, successfully lobbied the Motion Picture Association of America to grant the movie a PG-13 rating, rather than the R rating it was initially granted, so that more students could see the movie, according to the Los Angeles Times. AFT’s Weingarten was among those who publicly supported Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein in his battle with the MPAA. “Films like Lee Hirsch’s ‘Bully’ are critical in illustrating to students the painful consequences of bullying on their classmates and our communities,” Weingarten said in a statement. “By giving it a PG-13 rating, the MPAA can take a stand against bullying and ensure this powerful film reaches children across the country.” 

The film opens nationally this Friday.

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