The school system alone cannot combat bullying effectively


The Martha’s Vineyard public schools have moved deliberately to develop and adopt policies that will combat bullying and cyber-bullying, in accord with requirements of a state law approved in May.

The legislature and the governor undoubtedly experience some significant degree of self-satisfaction at their effort, which devolves upon small school systems like ours a new, demanding charge, grafted onto its central and increasingly difficult to finance educational job.

There is reliable, scientific evidence of the harm done to victims of these behaviors, whether they occur in actual or virtual interactions, whether the bully is a peer of the student or an adult, and also without regard to the particular susceptibility of the victim.

Despite the horrible stories we have heard of the results of bullying, most often by one or more students of a fellow student, the extent of the damage done to the victim is unclear. A single incident can be a lasting, crippling influence on a young life. These actions need not be physically threatening or harmful to have damaging consequences. Persistent bullying can lead to deadly consequences.

The responsibility that the anti-bullying law lays upon the teachers and administrators of the schools, like other responsibilities that run far ahead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, is hardly a responsibility that the school system is perfectly suited to discharge, or one that it is capable of discharging on its own, despite the best efforts of educational professionals.

Consider that data from the First Amendment Center’s 2009 annual survey of Americans on matters associated with the rights and obligations that are embodied in the language of the First Amendment have shown a pronounced change in the public’s view of, for example, whose job it is to keep inappropriate television programming — never mind what’s offered on the Internet — away from children.

Seventy-two percent of the national, random survey sample say parents should be primarily responsible. But, in 2004, those who placed the onus on parents were 87 percent of those surveyed. Today, 20 percent say broadcasters should be primarily responsible for keeping inappropriate programs away from children, up from 10 percent in 2004. And, five percent would charge the government with the responsibility today, compared with just one percent five years ago.

The broadly framed state law, together with the carefully drafted and ambitiously rigorous school policies, will doubtless help to identify and deal in a general way with student bullying.

It’s all we can ask of a school system that is designed to do a narrowly defined job but asked, in these modern times as attitudes about responsibility are changing, to do so much more.

But, given the growing but still limited understanding of the motivation of bullies and the effects on their victims, and given the vital roles parents ought to play in the effort to prevent such behavior, this new law and these new policies will nevertheless depend on parents to see their children clearly and do what is clearly needed to rear them. The schools will require parent partners in this effort.