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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Bureaucrats ward off bullies with fearsome 18-page checklist
Peter C. Hansen  (September 15, 2011, 3:06 am)

Bullying has become a cause célèbre in NJ these days, due largely to one particularly grievous recent crime. Unfortunately, the seemingly inevitable law that has resulted is loonier than the usual faddish overreaction. School superintendents are rightly complaining about it and its 18 pages of "required components" for schools' now-mandatory "comprehensive antibullying policies."

The new law brings the police to lunch lines, and trains kindergarteners (for six full class periods) on fine distinctions between "telling" and "tattling." Strangest of all to the common law tradition, the "innocent bystander" rule has been declared null. Scrawny third-graders will now have to confront sixth-grade thugs who shake down their classmates. How will they do this, exactly? One instinctively thinks of the "Ralphie loses it" method – the gold standard for discouraging bullies. This is not very PC, however, so presumably the formerly innocent bystander will have to go fill out a form somewhere, or simply distract the bully away from the victim and ... on to himself. Good luck with that one.

The sad but simple fact is that bullying is an unnecessary but inescapable part of life. There will always be thugs hell-bent on stealing lunch money. There will always be nasty little witches who call other girls fat sluts. There will always be punks who like to publicly belittle the younger and weaker. This doesn't make them acceptable or desirable to have around. They cannot, however, be eradicated. It's a DNA thing. Bullies show up with depressing regularity. Kids are indeed, on the whole, pretty savage little primates. Bullies need to be disciplined – harshly – when found out. They can even with sustained effort gradually be civilized, but utopian efforts at total suppression of "bullying" (however defined) will not only fail to work, but will also prove counterproductive in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways.

Bullying has a simple calculus. Bullies act like bullies because they can. Bullying is stopped when the cost of abuse gets too high. While self-help can raise the price via the "Ralphie method," schools have a natural duty (like governments) to impose order and prevent such violence. Unfortunately, official measures to raise the price can easily be too strong or too weak. For example, giving a fifth-grade thug a police record will turn a punk into a criminal, and may well encourage him with hard-core cred. On the other hand, putting a bully through "guidance" sessions will likely only irritate him and lead to off-premises reprisals.

The new NJ anti-bullying law gets just about everything wrong. It criminalizes peewee thuggery. It encourages victims to enmesh themselves in official processes that massively escalate the situation and stakes. It puts bystanders in deeply conflicted situations where they have a duty to endanger themselves. It imposes a rigid procedure where flexibility might lead to a better result. It encourages rather than discourages lawsuits. It infantilizes kids while making the school the arbiter of innumerable interactions. It promotes a culture of complaint and – judging by the disastrously ill-prepared "self-esteem" generation – it is not hard to imagine how today's kids will fare as adults when they are trained to believe that accusing others of bullying will give them an edge. Finally, there is the easily foreseeable "dumbing down" of bullying, so that everyday wisecracks will in time be officially transformed into forms of psychic torture.

There is in reality no easy answer to the issue of bullying. Punishment may temper or curtail a bully's acts, but it will seldom if ever address his or her underlying pathologies or ill-will. In other words, the stick cannot be the only solution. It is merely one of a good school official's many tools. Addressing bullies in a tough but effective manner takes wisdom, insight and character. It takes institutional flexibility, support for professional discretion, and a culture of enlightened authority. What it does not require is an 18-page "required components" checklist that constrains good officials and is only grudgingly implemented by apathetic ones.

The NJ Legislature should return to the drawing board and come up with a realistic new way to address the issue of bullying. This might (and arguably should) involve simply getting out of the way of local schools. It might alternatively look to establish a few provisions that define bullying statewide and provide basic guidance and support to local officials. In all events, given the widespread rejection of the new requirements by school officials, it is clear that a pre-fab, "comprehensive" approach to bullying is not the way to go.