Over the preceding decade, Michigan lawmakers have made multiple attempts to pass anti-bullying legislation. To the chagrin of advocates of anti-bullying legislation, each attempt has ended in failure. Because of this Michigan remains one of only five states not to have passed anti-bullying legislation; granted, Michigan's State Board of Education recommends that schools adopt an anti-bullying program and has even provided a model anti-bullying program for school boards to adopt. But the lack of legislation has many concerned that school districts are not adopting anti-bullying measures and thus children are vulnerable. Therefore, two identical bills have been introduced concurrently in the Michigan House and Senate to change the situation. Senate Bill (SB) 1458, introduced by Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D), and House Bill (HB) 6471, introduced by Rep. Deb Kennedy (D), are Michigan's latest attempts at passing anti-bullying legislation. This renewed push to enact anti-bullying legislation compels the questions: are anti-bullying programs efficacious; and, if so, what measures are the most efficacious?
First, anti-bullying measures can be effective. However, the results are not uniform and anti-bullying measures occasionally do not significantly reduce bullying (Ferguson, et al, 2007; Swearer, et al., 2010; Mishna, 2008). The reasoning for the occasional inefficacy of anti-bullying legislation is that bullying is a complex issue with multitudinous causes. Prevention programs can only be so effective. And they may be ineffective if the underlying causes of bullying are not addressed (Swearer, et al., 2010). This conclusion may be disappointing for anti-bullying advocates, but it should not deter efforts from passing anti-bullying legislation. Anti-bullying programs usually reduce bullying. Moreover, constructing an optimally efficacious anti-bullying program is possible; this is possible because the successful anti-bullying programs share certain measures. Identifying these measures and then ensuring that an anti-bullying program contains these certain measures aids in achieving optimal efficacy.
The first measure shared by successful anti-bullying programs is the education and instruction of teachers (Smith, et al., 2005; Swearer, et al., 2010). The point of the education and instruction is to help teachers identify and then prevent bullying. Involving teachers is particularly effective because teachers interact with students most frequently and thus have the most opportunities to identify and prevent bullying. Instructing administrators, maintenance, and other school staff (for example, lunch and playground staff) is also effective. But focusing on teachers should be made a priority.
The second effective measure shared by successful anti-bullying programs is the education of peers about bullying (Lodge & Frydenberg, 2005; Swearer, et al., 2010). Educating peers is especially effective because students are the parties involved, either actively or passively, in the bullying. As most students do not actively participate in bullying but are passive bystanders, this measure can be particularly effective if the education targets bystanders (Lodge & Frydenberg, 2005). Bystanders, the majority of students, can be educated to identify and then either support the person being bullied or notify an authority figure (for example, school administrator, teacher, or bus driver). Therefore, including peer education in an anti-bullying program is optimal.
A final effective measure shared by successful anti-bullying programs is the inclusion of a definition of bullying (Swearer, et al., 2010) in the program. The necessity of this measure may seem glaringly evident; nevertheless, it is exceedingly difficult. Some anti-bullying programs actually omit a definition because of the difficulty in constructing a definition. Defining what actions constitute bullying is not particularly difficult. There is a consensus that bullying is "aggressive behavior that (a) is intended to cause distress or harm, (b) involves an imbalance of power or strength between the aggressor and the victim, and (c) commonly occurs repeatedly over time" (APA Resolution; Ferguson, et al, 2007; Lodge & Frydenberg, 2005; Swearer, et al., 2010). The difficulty arises due to disagreements about whether certain characteristics (for example, race, religion, and sexual orientation) should be designated as specifically protected from bullying and included in the definition.
This disagreement is particularly salient for Michigan as its inclusion in previous anti-bullying legislation has been the primary cause of their repeated failures. Strident opposition to this measure comes primarily from conservatives; specifically, the American Family Association of Michigan which argued that the inclusion of LGBT students as a protected group would further the "homosexual agenda" (Heywood). As has been established, a definition of bullying is necessary to ensure an optimally effective anti-bullying program. Omitting a definition would inhibit the efficacy of any anti-bullying legislation. The issue of whether to include LGBT students as a protected group is also significant because, compared to other characteristics such as race and ethnicity, LGBT students are decidedly more likely to be targets of bullying (Swearer, et al., 2010). Only students with disabilities are as likely to be targets of bullying as LGBT students; the inclusion of students with disabilities as a protected group has not proven controversial. Thus, since LGBT students are markedly more likely to be the targets of bullies, omitting certain characteristics from the definition would have particularly pernicious effects on LGBT students. Therefore, the inclusion of certain characteristics is necessary to ensure optimal efficacy.
After establishing that anti-bullying programs can be effective, especially with the inclusion of certain measures, how effective is the proposed legislation and, if it is suboptimal, how can it be improved? First, the legislation contains a strict definition of what constitutes bullying. It includes a specific list of protected groups including students with disabilities and LGBT students. This specific feature is optimal and should not be excluded to permit passage of the legislation. Omitting a definition from the legislation and requiring school districts to provide a definition, as Sen. Wayne Kuipers (R) suggested (Heywood), would decrease the effectiveness of the legislation. The inclusion of a definition is integral to the success of anti-bullying programs. Ensuring that bullying is properly and unambiguously defined will ensure optimal efficacy.
Second, aside from providing a definition, the legislation does not include the other measures likely necessary for an optimally effective anti-bullying program. It merely mandates that school districts adopt effective anti-bullying programs. While including a definition is optimal and mandating that schools do not tolerate bullying is necessary, the exclusion of the other effective measures is suboptimal. For example, the legislation does not mandate school districts educate teachers about bullying and it omits measures to focus on educating peers. Perhaps mandating specific measures is infeasible. However, considering that the State Board of Education already recommends and provides a model anti-bullying policy for school boards, this seems unlikely. Therefore, the legislation should mandate that schools adopt the model policy constructed by the State Board of Education. Or, at the very least, the legislation should reference the model anti-bullying policy to increase schools' and the public's awareness of the model policy provided by the State Board of Education.
This paper examined the literature and identified the aspects of effective anti-bullying programs to aid the process. Hopefully, it will help change the proposed legislation to enact optimal anti-bullying legislation. However, even if the legislation is is not changed, it should be passed as it is currently constituted. Suboptimal legislation can still have positive effects. It is time for Michigan to pass anti-bullying legislation. Granted, the anti-bullying legislation will not be a panacea. But it will, at the least, notify school districts that preventing bullying is necessary and thereby reduce bullying.
"APA Resolution on Bullying Among Children and Youth." American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, July 2004. Web. Oct. 2010. http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/bullying.pdf.
Ferguson, C. J., C. S. Miguel, J. C. Kilburn, and P. Sanchez. "The Effectiveness of School-Based Anti-Bullying Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review." Criminal Justice Review 32.4 (2007): 401-14. Academic OneFile. Web. Oct. 2010.
Heywood, Todd A. "Kuipers: Anti-bullying Legislation Stalled by Lack of Definition « Michigan Messenger." Michigan Messenger. American Independent News Network, 19 Apr. 2010. Web. Oct. 2010. http://michiganmessenger.com/36885/kuipers-state-cant-define-bullying.
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Mishna, Faye. "An Overview of the Evidence on Bullying Prevention and Intervention Programs." Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention (2008): 327-41. ProQuest Education Journals. Web. Oct. 2010.
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Swearer, Susan M., Dorothy L. Espelage, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Shelley Hymel. "What Can Be Done About School Bullying?: Linking Research to Educational Practice." Educational Researcher 39 (010): 38-47. Academic OneFile. Web. Oct. 2010.