Can Congress Force Schools to Finally Get Serious About Bullying?

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require campuses to deal with harassment.

(Photo: Mareen Fischinger/Getty Images)

Feb 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

With a brilliant smile, sunny personality, and sweet disposition, Ronin Shimizu loved cheerleading, despite being the only boy on his Folsom, California, middle-school squad. The pain he suffered from years of bullying, however—schoolyard taunts, gay slurs, nasty remarks about his masculinity—was impossible to take.

So Ronin, age 12, decided not to take it. He killed himself two months ago.

“Ronin was a target of bullying by individuals that could not understand or accept his uniqueness,” his grief-stricken parents said in a statement issued after his death. “Ronin was not just a target of bullying because of his participation in cheer, but for him just being Ronin.”

A chronic problem as old as the playground, bullying has risen up the national agenda in recent years, the subject of school programs, news reports, sitcom story lines, and public-awareness campaigns. Yet Ronin’s story, while tragic, isn’t unique: the U.S. Department of Justice reports one in seven children is bullied as an adolescent or teenager, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked bullying to teen suicides.

Indeed, the month Ronin died, at least three other victims of bullying killed themselves too.

To stop the trend, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington has introduced a bill before Congress: the Safe Schools Improvement Act. If passed, the bill would require schools that receive federal funds to ban harassment “based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.”

Schools would also have to come up with a plan to deal with bullying if and when it happens.

“Bullying is a challenge that impacts far too many children and families across the country,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, one of the bill’s cosponsors, said in a statement. “Right now only 17 states have anti-bullying laws that contain protections for members of the LGBT community; that has to change.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, who also cosponsored the bill, agreed: “Every child deserves a safe environment, free of harassment, in which they can learn," he said in a statement.

In an age of social media, he added, “many children find they cannot escape the harassment when they go home at night. It follows them from the moment they wake until the moment they go to sleep.”

Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Children, Youth & Families Program, said the bill addresses “a huge problem, and it’s an equal-opportunity problem across rural, urban and suburban schools. Human Rights Campaign helped lawmakers craft the bill, which is pending before Congress.”

“The types of kids targeted might differ based on the composition of the school, but there aren’t any communities immune to it,” she said.

Though there’s more awareness of bullying and the damage it can cause, it’s been difficult to stop because “there is not a robust implementation of school-based initiatives and anti-bullying programs in schools,” Kahn said. Schools may mean well, she said, but “without policy, there’s no need to comply.”

The Safe Schools initiative, however, “puts more teeth in taking action” and creates the expectation “that they would intervene and address bullying in a much more proactive way.”

Dr. Judith Glassgold, the American Psychological Association’s associate director of government relations, said her organization has supported the inclusion of anti-bullying legislation in things like federal education- or health-related legislation.

“Preventing bullying is a high priority in preventing mental health and violence,” she said. “It’s similar to other forms of aggression among children, but it’s not unique. It causes tremendous mental harm,” said Glassgold, to victims, and can be a sign of mental health problems in the perpetrator too.

The SSIA bill is a positive step toward a comprehensive approach, but “there's no such thing as a cure-all when it comes to human behavior,” Glassgold said. Still, like federal highway funds tied to local speed limits or drunk-driving laws, it can have an impact.

“I’m not sure it’s a silver bullet, but it’s one of the few ways the government can intervene,” she said. “Using federal money [as leverage] is one way to improve school behavior.”

Though it comes too late for Ronin, the senators proposing the SSIA have joined forces with the young boy’s parents, even if they’re 3,000 miles—and worlds away—from Washington.

“We as his parents always knew that he would make an impact on the world, we just thought it would be in something like fashion design or art related,” they said in their statement after his death. “We had no idea that God and Buddha had a more important role for him, and we as his parents will make it our mission in life to turn this tragedy into something positive and hopefully prevent another senseless tragedy.”