47% of U.S. high school students have been bullied.[i] 56% of students report that they have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school.[ii] 25% of students report being bullied on the basis of their race or religion[iii], with that figure as high as 80% for Muslim students.[iv]
Given these statistics, it seems rather shocking that, while most states in the U.S. have some form of anti-bullying legislation, until very recently, Michigan—a diverse and populous state with a significant number of Muslim residents—did not. However, on December 6th, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed his state’s anti-bullying bill into law, making Michigan the 48th state to pass such legislation.
The bill in question, referred to as “Matt’s Safe School Law,” initially came under criticism for including a provision protecting bullies who act based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” This language only appeared in the Senate version of the bill. Many believed that this provision, if passed, would have allowed bullies to target students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered without punishment. Muslim groups also expressed a similar concern, believing that acts of anti-Muslim sentiment in schools would, under this provision, go unpunished if somehow rooted in the bully’s own religious or moral beliefs.
This controversial provision has since been removed from the final version of the bill, perhaps due to the protests it sparked. The bill signed by Governor Snyder follows a version presented in the House, which removed the controversial religious provision. Additionally, the House version of the bill requires all public, charter and intermediate school districts to implement the new anti-bullying policies. While this represents a step in the right direction, the anti-bullying bill could still be more direct and specific. For instance, the bill does not mention any of the common causes of bullying, such as race, religion or sexual orientation. Such a list appears in the anti-bullying legislation of many other states. Additionally, the Michigan bill does not specify detailed reporting requirements for when bullying does occur. Amendments to address these issues, as well as another amendment specifically designed to crack down on cyberbullying, were rejected, mainly because the state legislature wanted to leave those details to local districts.
Many have heralded the passing of this law as a step in the right direction while acknowledging that there is still much more work to be done. For instance, Kevin Epling, the father of the Michigan teen and bullying victim after whom the legislation is named, said after the bill signing that “this may not be everything we wanted compared to other states but, you know, it is a firm foundation to start from.” Indeed, Michigan now faces the task of putting its legislation into practice. Under the new law, schools have six months to develop their anti-bullying policies and make sure they are in place for the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. As individual schools develop their policies, they should take seriously the opportunity to fill in many of the gaps left in the official legislation. Each school community can send a strong message by not just creating an anti-bullying policy, but by going above and beyond the provisions of the law to make clear to all students, staff and families that bullying will not be tolerated under any circumstance. Furthermore, administrators and teachers can take extra steps to develop a culture of understanding and respect in their schools, teaching students to appreciate diversity, and thus eliminating the biases and misassumptions that underlie much bullying in the first place. Even more than legislation, education can help eliminate bullying and ensure stronger, safer and more cooperative communities in schools and beyond.
“The Ethics of American Youth: 2010,” Josephson Institute—Center for Youth Ethics October 26,
“Educators,” Stopbullying.gov <http://stopbullying.gov/educators/index.html>.
“Bullying and Classroom Harassment,” The Center for Violence-Free Relationships
“ING Efforts Against Student Bullying is Cited in Congressional Hearing,” Islamic Networks Group April
6, 2011 <http://www.ing.org/enews/against-student-bullying.html#story-1>.