Monday, March 18, 2013

Anti-Bullying Legislation in South Dakota: A Lesson in Treating the Symptoms

Happy first birthday to South Dakota’s anti-bullying law!

In March 2012, South Dakota became the forty-ninth state to pass anti-bullying legislation. Until then, according to Rapid City Journal newswriter David Montgomery, “the U.S. Department of Education identified South Dakota as the only state in the country that doesn't have either legislation or statewide policy dealing with bullying” (1, emphasis added). Sometimes it’s good to be number one.

Sometimes.

Senate Bill No. 130, now a South Dakota law, identifies bullying as “repeated conduct that causes physical hurt or psychological distress” or “property damage” (2). It provides a model that individual school districts can adopt and amend as needed. According to the Associated Press, “The bill's model prohibits bullying, sets a procedure for reporting and investigating it and addresses ‘cyber’ or electronic harassment” (3).

No one likes kids being bullied. So everyone is happy now, right? Well, no. See, the anti-bullying law includes a teensy bit of verbiage that packs a whole lot of controversy. At the end of Section 1, it declares “no school district policy prohibiting bullying,… may contain any protected classes of students” (4). Confused? It means two big things: 1. Policies meant to protect kids from bullying may not address or take into account the identity-based reasons bullying might occur; and 2. Local investigators and reporters of bullying cannot enumerate on the reason(s) why bullying occurred. South Dakota is only one of two states in the U.S. to contain anti-bullying laws that prohibit enumeration, a choice the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network say hobbles the legislation, particularly for the groups likeliest to be bullied (5).

But, bullying sucks no matter who bullies and why, right? Sure, but by forbidding schools to recognize groups at risk and acquire information on why the bullying occurred, it makes it impossible for schools to create helpful statistics and, more importantly, to create preventative policies beyond commanding "Don't Bully!"

“As the legislation did not list sexual orientation or gender identity as part of the suggested
model, it doesn’t appear to be very effective or have much teeth,” Patricia A. Martinson, President of the Board of Directors for the Black Hills Center for Equality, Inc., stated in a personal exchange. In addition, she noted the law featured an “escape clause” that allowed “civil exchanges” of opinion as long as they don’t disrupt educational situations or specifically intrude on the rights of others. Yet how, she wonders, can one know if they intrude on the rights of others when the law specifically forbids addressing what are dangerous, problematic topics?
Some information on bullying:
  • According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 40 percent to 80 percent of all children experienced bullying at least once during their school years.
  • LGBT youth, youth with disabilities, non-White, and non-Christian students are much likelier to experience bullying (6).
  • In 2009, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports approximately 85 percent of LGBT youth experienced verbal harassment, while 40 percent were physically confronted. Sixty percent felt unsafe at school.
  • The National Autistic Society reports that 40 percent of children with autism and 60 percent of children with Asperger’s syndrome have experienced bullying” (7).
  • Mental Health America, an organization advocating for mental health rights, reports LGBT schoolchildren were exposed to anti-gay slurs such as “homo,” “faggot,” and “sissy” about 26 times a day, on average.
  •  According to Mental Health America, effects of bullying include depression, fear, lack of concentration at school, a dropout rate three times higher than their heterosexual peers, and even, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a much higher rate of suicide.
As it stands, SD’s anti-bullying law, which celebrates its first
birthday in a few days, forbids reporting the reasons why kids are bullied; current policies can only treat its effects without being able to compile data on the types of bullying and create effective, proactive ways to prevent such bullying. So, in short, bullies may be punished, but the ignorance and biases leading to those actions remain unaddressed. Vulnerable groups, such as LGBT youth and youth with disabilities, can expect little in the way of relief from bullying and nothing in efforts to prevent abuses specific to their experiences.

If you’re a South Dakotan and would like to urge the legislators to take another look at this legislation, please click here to find your state legislators and then email, write, or call them.

Thanks for caring about the kids.


* Note: The incomparable Kris Owen helped me compile some of the information for this blog entry. 

3 comments:

  1. "Sixty percent felt unsafe at school"?! and TWENTY_SIX slurs a day? Those stats are APPALLING!

    And SHAME on the SD Legislature! SHAME on them for being smallminded, selfish assholes! If, in their minds, some people deserve hatred and bullying, they best pray that the status quo never, ever changes.

    But despite their shameful bigotry, we know it will.

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    1. I agree, LJ. When researching this and seeing what SD legislators had to say about holding off till 2012 to pass anti-bullying legislation, I was disgusted to see them biting their nails over districts feeling oppressed by the state's interference. Poor rights of local districts! I was like, "The districts?! You know who I care about? THE KIDS!"

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  2. And btw, today I wrote my district's two state reps and one state senator regarding this issue. I also sent them a link to this post. I hope they read it.

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