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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Better approach needed on bullying

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about bullying.

But bullying is not a new problem.

In the 1941 film “How Green Was My Valley,” the boy Huw is picked on repeatedly by schoolmates. The solution? Huw’s father asks a local boxer to teach his son to fight. And fight he does, in one of the film’s more rousing scenes.

In the decades since, the way people respond to bullying has changed dramatically.

You seldom hear adults suggest that bullied children learn to fight. Or that they simply ignore the bullies, which is the advice I generally received. These days, the general consensus is that adults should intervene directly when children are bullied, and that anti-bullying programs should be a routine part of the K-12 educational experience. Because some of the more sensational modern-day bullying stories have involved the Internet, many communities have passed cyberbullying laws, which criminalize online bullying.

On Monday the state Court of Appeals struck down Albany County’s cyberbullying law, saying it was too broad and violated the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

The decision overturned the cyberbullying conviction of a Cohoes teenager who posted sexual information about his classmates on Facebook, and will likely bring to an end the prosecution of four Guilderland High School students who allegedly posted a vulgar rap song about their classmates online.
These students obviously behaved very badly, but the court made the right call.

The First Amendment has always protected speech that might be deemed unpleasant and distressing by others, and it doesn’t exempt mean comments on the Internet.

As Associate Judge Victoria Graffeo noted in the majority decision, the Albany County law’s definition of cyberbullying included “ ‘posting statements on the internet or through a computer or email network, disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs; disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information; or sending hate mail.’ But such methods of expression are not limited to instances of cyberbullying — the law includes every conceivable form of electronic communication, such as telephone conversations, a ham radio transmission or even a telegram.”

Albany County officials have said they will work to pass a revised, more narrowly focused cyberbullying law that passes Constitutional muster.

And they certainly have the right to do that.

But I’m starting to wonder whether cyberbullying is really a problem that necessitates a legislative solution.

We already have laws against harassment.

And the state’s Dignity for All Students Act requires that schools investigate and report complaints of harassment and discrimination to the Department of Education and maintain school environments that are “free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying.” Included in the act are penalties such as suspension from school.

I also wonder whether turning the age-old problem of bullying into a matter for the criminal justice system to resolve is really the wisest strategy.

Because while it’s true that the 24-7 world of social media can exacerbate bullying, by making it difficult — if not impossible — for students to escape the harsh words and nasty treatment of their peers, it’s also true that teenagers have always said and done stupid, mean things. Which means that cyberbullying laws inevitably target teenagers.

And I won’t argue that teenagers shouldn’t be held accountable for poor behavior. But is arresting teenagers and hauling them into court the best way to address cyberbullying?

One journalist who has written extensively on this topic is Emily Bazelon, who wrote the 2013 book “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.”

In an essay in The New York Times, she writes that bullying is being overused, “making the real but limited problem seem impossible to solve. . . . There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it — and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable. But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.”

Bazelon suggests a variety of ways to deal with bullying, such as sympathizing with victims while also teaching them to be resilient, making an effort to understand the complex relationships among teenagers and making sure that teachers and school administrators “set the tone.” She cautions against “overly broad legal definitions of bullying” that “can lead parents to cry bully whenever their child has a conflict with another child.”

Bullying is no longer regarded as a rite of passage, which is a good thing.

When I was a kid, it never would have occurred to me to report bullying to my teachers. Nor would I have expected them to do much about it.

But the dawning awareness that bullying can be extremely harmful has led public officials to overreact to the problem by passing poorly-conceived laws and overcharging teenagers who behaved badly, but not violently.

There must be a better approach.

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