Clearer Antibullying Laws Needed To Address Children's Health

Armen Hareyan's picture
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School is supposed to be a safe haven for students, but 30 percent of U.S. adolescents in grades six through 10 are involved in physical aggression, verbal harassment or other forms of mistreatment -- whether as bullies or victims.

"Bullying is everywhere. It happens not only in schools, but it happens at home among siblings, in prisons, in the workplace. It's a silent epidemic," said Jorge Srabstein, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Children's National Medical Center.

In a new study published in the January issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, lead author Srabstein and colleagues looked at the content of current state statutes addressing school bullying.

What's the good news? Before 2003, a previous study found that 15 states had enacted antibullying laws. As of June 2007, 35 states have laws that address harassment, intimidation and bullying at school, covering an estimated 77 percent of the 38 million students enrolled in public schools.

Despite this progress, the authors found that only 25 states have defined bullying, harassment or intimidation, and states do not always rely on the same concepts.

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Antibullying laws should provide an unambiguous and inclusive explanation of bullying based on an accepted, evidence-based definition of the problem, the authors say.

"A clear definition of bullying makes it easier to explain to students what specific behaviors are unacceptable and why," Srabstein said. "Additionally, it makes clear to all adults involved what is meant by bullying, so they can educate and enforce unambiguous standards of conduct," he said.

The researchers found that 21 states have legislation that addresses the link between bullying and serious adverse health effects on individuals and communities.

Twenty-three states prohibit bullying and 24 states have indicated that their local school boards should have the opportunity or requirement to develop bullying prevention programs, Srabstein said.

Only 16 states -- covering about 32 percent of public school students -- have legislation that includes basic antibullying public health principles, such as a clear definition of bullying and its link to health risks, the prohibition of bullying and the need for antibullying prevention programs.

"It's certainly important to underscore the fact that states can do more," said Richard Gilman, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He was unaffiliated with the study.

However, "just because some states don't fit within the parameters of what [the authors] are specifying, it doesn't mean that they aren't working toward antibullying efforts, and just because a state has something on the books doesn't necessarily mean it's effective," Gilman said.

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