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Why Anti-Bullying Laws Are Doomed to Fail

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by Izzy Kalman (November 2005)

The Shocking Statistics about Anti-Bullying Programs

Almost a year has passed since the publication of a scientific report of such momentous importance that it should have caused an uproar in the Western world and made headlines in all newspapers. Instead, the information has fallen on deaf ears and one must play the detective to track it down.

The fourth quarter 2004 issue of the School Psychology Review, the research journal of the National Association of School Psychologists, published the findings of Canadian Psychologist, J. David Smith, PhD, of the University of Ottawa, in a paper entitled “The Effectiveness of Whole-School Anti-Bullying Programs: A Synthesis of Evaluation Research.” He had conducted a meta analysis of all the research studies on the effectiveness of whole-school anti-bullying programs. Guess what he discovered. They don’t work!

As Dr. Smith reports, “…86% of victimization outcomes [reports by victims of program benefits] were negligible or negative and the remaining 14% of reported effects were positive (albeit small). For self-reported bullying, 100% of the reported effects were negligible or negative.”

Given the tendency of research to go in the direction researchers hope it will, the results may be even worse than what these studies indicate. And we can only imagine the terrible things we would discover if researchers actually set out to measure the harmful effects of anti-bullying programs, such as promotion of a victim-mentality, pushing “bullies” to become more anti-social, wrongful punishment, diverting precious class time from academics, turning students against each other, and creating family feuds.

When less damning results are found for a medication, it’s immediately pulled off the shelves and the manufacturer faces law-suits in the billions of dollars.

In the six years since Columbine, the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars while wasting countless hours of class time on anti-bullying programs that don’t work and even cause harm. Meanwhile, State after State, at the urging of mental health organizations and parent lobbying associations, is passing anti-bullying laws making schools responsible for stopping students from bullying each other. They will have to depend on anti-bullying programs that don’t work! Parents will become enriched by lawsuits against their schools for failing to stop their children from being bullied. But, amazingly, no one seems to care that these programs don’t work. Why?

Why Does No One Care?

Because we don’t want to. We have all experienced the misery of being a victim at one time or another, and our “inner-victim” wants revenge. How nice to finally have a scientist-blessed anti-bully movement that makes it legitimate to blame and hate others for our misery.

We adults haven’t yet figured out how to protect ourselves from the bullies in our lives, and we sure wish that someone would do it for us. So we’ve decided to give our children the security we ourselves have never known. Oh, the excitement of playing knights in shining armor protecting virtuous victims from the evil bullies in school!

A researcher discovers that the programs don’t work? They may even make matters worse? So what! We’re not about to let our beloved anti-bully crusade (and the millions of “free” dollars) be threatened by facts. Fighting bullies is the moral thing to do no matter how much destruction we leave in our wake. We love our big white horses and gleaming armor, and no one’s going to take them away!

What Aristotle Could Have Told Us

In case you are curious, would you like to know why anti-bully policies don’t work? It’s because they can’t – never have, never will. Aristotle figured that out 2400 years ago.

Aristotle, the most influential thinker in the history of the Western world, advocated for good government and for providing maximum rights to people. Yet even he knew, “The one thing that no state or government can do, no matter how good it is, is to make its citizens morally virtuous.” (Mortimer Adler, in “Aristotle for Everybody”; McMillan Publishing Company, 1978).

But this is precisely what the anti-bully movement is trying to do – guarantee our children a life surrounded by morally virtuous people. In other words – saints. Strange as this may sound, if you carefully inspect the academic definition of bullying, you’ll realize that anyone who doesn’t meet the criteria of sainthood is a “bully”:

“Bullying may involve physical action, words, gestures, or social isolation. Although bullying may involve direct, relatively open attacks against a victim, bullying frequently is indirect, or subtle in nature (spreading rumors, enlisting a friend to assault a child).” (State Laws and Policies to Address Bullying in Schools, by Susan Limber and Mark Small, School Psychology Review, 2003, Volume 32).

In other words, whenever you treat someone in a way they don’t like, you are a bully.

Who Started It?

Prof. Dan Olweus, the Norwegian psychologist who conducted research on bullying in the 1970’s, is known as the “father” of the anti-bully movement, and all the popular programs are based on his guidelines. In his book, “Bullying at School” (Blackwell Publishing, 1993) he calls it a “fundamental democratic principle” that “every individual should have the right to be spared oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation, in school as in society at large.”

By “oppression” Olweus is not talking about slavery or forced prostitution; he is talking about any action that bothers anyone else – things all of us do occasionally. Olweus apparently never studied government or philosophy, or he would have understood that this is not, and cannot be, a fundamental democratic principle. The place where no one does anything bad to anyone else is called Heaven, and you have to die to get in. Democracy, even at its best, is not Heaven on Earth.

Why can’t a government (and this includes that of a school) “make its citizens morally virtuous”, as the anti-bully policies are attempting? A little logical thinking will provide the answer.

Aristotle explains that moral behavior is a choice; it can’t be forced on people. It sure would be terrific if a government could simply decree its citizens to be saints. If this were possible, world peace would have been achieved long ago.

But, as Aristotle knew, human beings aren’t biologically programmed to be saints. Making it a crime to do anything that someone else doesn’t like would lead to a totalitarian police state, with the government controlling every minute interaction between its citizens. Let’s say we work together and for whatever reasons you can’t stand my personality. You don’t want to include me in your lunch group, so I get you arrested for “relational aggression.” You think I rolled my eyes when you spoke at a meeting, so this time you get me arrested for “hostile gestures.” You disagree with me at a meeting, so I get you arrested again because it really upsets me when people challenge my opinions in public.

A moral society, by definition, cannot be achieved through legislation. Instead of creating Heaven on Earth, anti-bullying laws would turn society into a Living Hell.

Expecting the Absurd

Let’s look at the practical application of anti-bully policies in school. We’re students and you pick on me. I tell the teacher. S/he says to you, “Bullying will not be tolerated. You have to be nice to people. Bully Izzy again and you’ll be sent to the counselor. And if that doesn’t help, you’re going to be punished, even expelled.” That’s supposed to make you respect me and want to be nice? It will make you want to beat me up after school, or to look for an opportunity to get me in trouble with the teacher.

Or let’s say that the program has taught student bystanders to stand up for victims. A kid sees you insulting me and says, “Hey, bullying isn’t cool! You leave Izzy alone!” Are you going to say to me, “Gee whizz, I didn’t realize I wasn’t cool. Izzy, won’t you please forgive me and be my friend?”

Only a fool would expect kids to react in this way, yet this is precisely what our mental health professionals and educators are hoping, and even expecting, will happen!

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Anti-bully programs are based on the idea that bullying is a learned behavior. Just as kids have learned to be bullies, they now need to be taught how to be saints. Who, exactly, is going to teach our kids to be saints? You and I? Who do you think they could have learned bullying from in the first place?! Can we honestly tell our kids: “Learn from us how to treat people. Have you noticed how respectful we are to our spouses, and that we never get divorced? And of course we are never mean to our children. We would never say a bad word about our parents, siblings, in-laws, colleagues and bosses – not even behind their backs! We all attend the Non-Discriminatory Church of Universal Acceptance and live in peaceful, integrated neighborhoods.”

Let’s look at what my own research has been revealing about us. About one thousand mental health professionals and educators have filled out my Bullying Survey. 47% of them answered Yes to this item: “There is at least one person in my life that gets angry with me fairly regularly.” This means that almost half of these professionals are currently bullying someone. (People don’t get angry when you are treating them the way they want to be treated, i.e., respectfully, kindly.)

To the item, “There is at least one person in my life that I get angry with fairly regularly,” 57% answered Yes. This means that more than half of mental health professionals and educators are currently feeling victimized and they don’t know how to make the bullying stop. Furthermore, the academic bullying experts define anger as an act of bullying. So by getting angry, these same 57% are simultaneously being bullies. That’s because when you get angry, you feel like a victim, but you look like a bully!

6% of respondents answered affirmatively to, “I have a child who gets hit by other kids in school at least once a day.”

21% answered Yes to, “My children hit each other at least once a day.”

This means that children of mental health professionals and educators are three-and-a-half times more likely to be hit by a sibling at home than by a kid in school. If experts at human relations do such a lousy job of protecting a couple of their own kids from each other at home, how in the world can they expect one teacher to protect thirty kids from each other in school? The answer is that they shouldn’t expect it, but they do anyway.

The Only One Who Can Solve the Bullying Problem

As Aristotle understood so well, there are things a government can do for you and things it can’t. Government can only give you things that money can buy. It can pay for teachers, but it can’t make you learn. It can pay for health care, but it can’t make you healthy. It can pay for police to protect you from crime, but it can’t guarantee that you’ll never be a victim of it.

And one thing it absolutely cannot do is provide you with a world of saints. It can, at best, punish people for not being nice to you. But then, one of the nastiest things you can do to a person is to get them punished by the authorities. So how can the government guarantee you a world of nice people when you’re allowed to be so mean?

If we are to have any chance of achieving a meaningful reduction in bullying, there is one fact we all need to recognize: There is only one person in the world who can get people to treat you well. And that person is you.

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