School Safety Politically Hijacked: Civil Rights Masked As Anti-Bullying Laws? Part 2

Posted by on September 9, 2010

Proposed anti-bullying laws fail to focus on bullying behaviors, instead describing personal characteristics of the victims. These proposed laws would better be described as proposed civil rights laws, not anti-bullying laws. School safety is being increasingly hijacked by special interest groups advocating for their social and political agendas. A politicized and skewed policy and funding focus on single issues versus comprehensive approaches to school safety is not in the best interests of school safety.

Let’s take a look at areas of common ground, questions raised, and rationale for my take on the issues.

Common Ground Agreement on School Safety

There appears to be a couple points of common ground — and this is a good thing:

  1. We all agree schools need to be safe for all kids.
  2. We all agree bullying is a legitimate area of serious concern to be addressed in school safety planning.

Where the differences come in is on how to accomplish these goals.

My Take on Anti-Bullying Laws and the Politicization of School Safety

My take is based on over 25 years of professional K-12 school safety experience working firsthand with schools on safety, security, and emergency preparedness issues across the nation.  My assessment of the issues is based upon this experience, not on any political alliance with any particular advocacy group.  And my bias is not homophobic, but politi-phobic:  I object strongly to the politicization of school safety.

  1. Proposed anti-bullying laws fail to focus on bullying behaviors, instead describing personal characteristics of the victims. These proposed laws would better be described as proposed civil rights laws, not anti-bullying laws.  Masking broader civil rights agendas and bills under the guise of “anti-bullying” is not in the best interest of school safety; to the contrary, it politicizes school safety.
  2. If the goal is fairness and equality, which it should be, then we should focus on policies and practices which create schools safe for all kids, not by further dividing and creating special protected classes of one group over another group of students, and excluding (and thereby lessening the importance of) many other types of bullying such as that against overweight kids, kids who have red hair and freckles, kids who wear glasses, kids with physical disabilities or special learning needs, etc.
  3. Federal and state school anti-bullying laws take the wrong, and unnecessary, approach. Local school policies that apply to behaviors which constitute “bullying” are in place in the vast majority of our nation’s schools. “Bullying” typically refers to verbal, physical, or other acts committed by a student to harass, intimidate, or cause harm to another student.  The behaviors attributed to bullying may include verbal threats, menacing, harassment, intimidation, assaults, extortion, sexual assault, sexual harassment, disruption of the school environment and associated disorderly conduct, and other related behaviors. The proposed federal laws, and many state laws, enumerate personal characteristics and not specific behaviors which constitute bullying.  More importantly, this is a moot issue as there is not a need for more state or federal  laws since behaviors which represent bullying are already outlined in school policies and student codes of conduct. In short, the proposed laws provide front-line educators no tools to address bullying behaviors that they currently do not have available to them in local school policies, in criminal and civil law, and in the school climate strategies already available to schools.
  4. Laws which are too vague will open up the flood gates for frivilous law suits against school districts.  Vague laws also beg the question of what such anti-bullying laws will actually accomplish that existing civil rights laws, education laws, criminal laws, and school policies/student codes of conduct do not already address.
  5. LGBT students, like all students, deserve to be safe in school.  Existing school policies, along with criminal and civil laws, provide tools to address LGBT student safety as well as all other students.  Whether or not those tools are used to their maximum effectiveness is a local, case-by-case issue, which can and should be addressed by each school district and their school-community.
  6. Anti-bullying efforts should be one component of a comprehensive and balanced approach to school safety.  It is not the only component, though, nor should it be skewed to be the only component. Overemphasizing laws, policies, and funding actions around bullying is no more appropriate than overemphasizing gangs, drugs, weapons, security equipment, school-based policing, or emergency planning. See my July 2009, Congressional testimony to a House joint subcommittee hearing on school safety, along with What Constitutes Comprehensive School Safety Policies, Programs, and Funding? and Education Department Redefines School Safety, Downplays Violence
  7. The legal tools are in place to initiate criminal and other investigations and charges on harassment-related offenses when warranted.  In Massachusetts, in the Phoebe Prince case, the prosecutors brought criminal charges without having to create a new law. Additionally, the LGBT community lauded the passage of The Matthew Shepard Act, signed into law by President Obama in October of 2009, which expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. There are certainly local, state, and federal laws (civil rights and criminal) in place which provide tools to redress inequalities, harassment, and behaviors which constitute a crime. In fact, having listened to Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department, in her speech at the recent federal anti-bullying summit (See U.S. Education Department’s Bullying Summit: Facts, Fad, or Just Bull? and Radical Policy Shift Targets Bullying as Federal Civil Rights Issue, it seems clear that the Department has the authority to address civil rights complaints in this area. I did not hear her call for a new law during her passionate comments. To the contrary, I heard her, as well as Secretary Duncan, announce they were going to more vigorously enforce existing civil rights laws in this area. It certainly sounded to me as if they have adequate law in place to do so.
  8. Anti-bullying policies and climate strategies need to be tailored school-by-school.  School policies and practices are local control issues.  Federal and state governments have traditionally addressed bullying and other school safety issues through advancing research and, funding prevention and intervention programs.  It is not the role of the federal government to become the “bullying police.”  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools has said multiple times that it failed in managing the Safe and Drug Free Schools grant program for over 10 years, claiming themselves that the program they ran for a decade was “ineffective,” which begs us to ask about the competence and ability of the federal government to run meaningful federal safe schools programs.  The Department has a tough enough time and a lot of resistance defending its education  proposals for local schools, much less taking a more hands-on approach with day-to-day local school safety. An overreaching federal hand in investigating local school bullying cases and skewing the bulk of federal school safety funding to “bullying, climate, and incivility” is not in the best interests of school safety. 
  9. Special interest advocacy groups should put their full agenda on the table, call it what it is, debate it openly, propose a law reflecting the agenda if they so desire, and let legislators vote on it. I am not advocating against gay rights or civil rights, nor am I advocating for an opposing political agenda. I am advocating against masking  broader social / political agendas under the guise of “bullying” and politicizing school safety by special interests. I am also advocating against a skewed federal school safety public policy and funding approach which is currently proposed by the U.S. Department of Education. See Radical Policy Shift Targets Bullying as Federal Civil Rights Issue, Education Department Redefines School Safety, Downplays Violence, and Federal Bullying Police: Coming to a School Near You
  10. Special interest advocates advance their arguments by putting a “human face” on their cause. Gay rights and anti-bullying law advocates frequently refer to students who have completed suicide after being bullied by anti-gay taunts and harassment. Anti-bullying advocates often add the comment that they were bullied as students. Christian conservatives point to cases where parents have objected to the introduction of homosexual referencing curriculum introduced in local schools under “safe schools” and “anti-bullying” initiatives. 

By no means do I minimize the seriousness of the individual losses by families of children who have committed suicide, nor do I minimize the importance of parents having a voice in what is and is not taught in their child’s public schools.  Many individuals, including myself and members of my family, have been the victims of bullying, so we also have personal experiences. As a parent and as a school safety professional, I never want to see the loss of life of a child and the harassment of kids in schools.

But I also don’t believe in “legislation by anecdote.”  Putting a “human face” on a cause touches the heart, as is understandable.  But it also is a tool used by social and political advocates to advance their cause.  When discussing and debating legislation, policy, and funding, the focus needs to be on facts, practicality and usefulness of the policy and law, and the pros and cons of the law or policy.

We can all put a human face on school safety.  Yesterday, for example, School Resource Officer Carolyn Gudger returned to work after intervening with a gunman who entered her Blountville, TN, school last week and pulled a gun on a principal while a student was nearby. Officers had to take the man’s life to protect those in the school. By all accounts, Deputy Gudger is a hero. Advocacy groups could easily exploit that incident and call for legislation and funding to put a School Resource Officer in every school across the nation, resulting in a dramatically skewed policy and funding shift. However, while I strongly support SROs, myself and others have not used that situation to make that type of proposed change.  Instead, I continue to advocate for a balanced and comprehensive approach to school safety.

Additionally, I take offense when I see anti-bullying special interest advocates attempt to cast those who disagree with them as being “pro-bully” or “against anti-bullying efforts.”  This political and communication tactic makes for an interesting web page headline and media soundbite, but it also resorts to attacking the person who opposes you versus attacking the facts of their opposition. It often suggests that the attacker cannot attack the facts, so they attack the person. It is somewhat ironic that some who advocate so strongly against bullying have no problem bullying those with different viewpoints.

In short, everyone can find a case study, human face, and personal experience to advocate for a special interest cause and agenda.  It makes for good TV, conference speeches, and legislative testimony, but “legislation by anecdote” is not a sound approach for good public policy and funding. And attacking the person opposing you, versus attacking the facts, weakens one’s argument and credibility.

Why So Much Attention to the Politics of School Safety?

Why do I focus on the political agendas driving school safety? The answer is simple: 

  1. Parents and educators don’t know what they don’t know. Most believe elected officials are trying to make public policy and funding decisions, rightly or wrongly, to improve school safety.  And while many indeed are, there are also political forces with agendas behind-the-scenes lobbying legislators and advocating for their social and political agendas which may not result in necessary, or the best, school safety policy and funding decisions.  Parents and educators need the mask of politics lifted so they see the broader picture of what is going on behind the scenes.
  2. Politicizing school safety has huge public policy and dollar implications.   In this case, there is $410 million and a skewed federal school safety policy which de-emphasizes violence in the definition of school safety at risk.  Once special interests hijack school safety to further their social and political agendas, policies and funding decisions can become grossly skewed versus being tailored toward developing a comprehensive and balanced approach to improving school safety.  This creates the risks of more special interests attempting to frame their agendas under the guise of “school safety,” and in the end the best practices in approaching school safety lose out while special interests may or may not prevail — and people may just shy away from dealing with school safety at all. 

There is a lot to process here.  But that’s good.  It’s time to look beyond the emotional aspects of bullying and anti-bullying, and look at the real social and political driving forces and agendas, as well as the policy and funding implications of today’s discussions and proposed laws.

Ken Trump

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