Recent student suicides have parents and advocates complaining that anti-bullying laws enacted in nearly every state are not being enforced and do not go far enough to identify and rid schools of chronic tormentors.
Forty-four states expressly ban bullying, a legislative legacy of a rash of school shootings in the late '90s, yet few if any of those measures have identified children who excessively pick on their peers, an Associated Press review has found. And few offer any method for ensuring the policies are enforced, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The issue came to a head in April when 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera committed suicide at his Atlanta-area home after his parents say he was repeatedly tormented in school. District officials denied it, and an independent review found bullying wasn't a factor, a conclusion his family rejects.
Regardless, Georgia's law, among the toughest in the nation, still would not have applied: It only applies to students in grades six to 12. Herrera was a fifth-grader.
No data collected
Georgia's law has one of the largest gaps between what it requires of districts and the tools it gives them for meeting those requirements. The state doesn't collect data specifically on bullying occurrences, despite legislation that promises to strip state funding from schools failing to take action after three instances involving a bully.
After Herrera's death, other parents came forward to say their children had been bullied and that school officials did nothing with the complaints, rendering the state's law useless.
"There is a systematic problem," said Mike Wilson, who said his 12-year-old daughter was bullied for two years in the same school district where Herrera died. "The lower level employees, the teachers, the principals, are trying to keep this information suppressed at the lowest possible level."
Only six states — Montana, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, North Dakota and South Dakota — and the District of Columbia lack specific laws targeting school bullying, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states require school districts to adopt open-ended policies to prohibit bullying and harassment.
While some direct state education officials to form model policies that school districts should mimic, they offer little to assure the policies are enforced; only a handful of states require specific data gathering meant to assure bullying is being monitored, for instance.
"The states themselves can't micromanage a school district — but they can say to a school district, 'Look, you have to have consequences,'" said Brenda High, whose Web site, Bully Police USA, tracks anti-bullying laws across the nation, and who advocates for strict repercussions for bullies. The Washington state-based advocate's son, Jared, was 13 when he committed suicide in 1998 after complaining of bullying.
"It needs to be written into the law that bullying has the same consequences as assault," she said. "The records and such need to be kept so that if the child is a chronic bully, they — after so many instances — will end up in an alternative school."
Forfeit state funding
Alaska and Georgia have particularly specific statutes. Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development must compile annual data on bullying complaints and report it to the Legislature.
Georgia's 10-year-old law goes a step further. It specifies that three instances of bullying is grounds for transfer to an alternative school, away from the victim. School systems not in compliance forfeit state funding, according to the law.
Despite that record-keeping provision, the Georgia Department of Education cannot say whether any child has been transferred as a result of bullying because the department only tracks the number for broader offenses, including fighting and threats, spokesman Dana Tofig said.
"If the district is not enforcing its own bullying policy, and that's been happening repeatedly, the law says they can lose their state funding," Tofig said.
No school has lost funding under the law, according to the department.
Some school districts say they keep track of complaints, especially those involving a single child being bullied more than once, and that they address those cases. Without a legal obligation to report such data to state officials, however, it's unclear how any such statistics are used.
In 2007, nearly a third of students ages 12 to 18 reported having been bullied during the school year, according to data on more than 55 million students compiled annually by the National Center for Education Statistics. That's up from as few as 1 in 10 students in the '90s, though bullying experts point out the rising numbers may reflect more reports of bullying, not necessarily more incidents.
Trying to quantify bullying
Many children reported teasing, spreading rumors and threats, all harder to spot and manage, school leaders say.
"One of the questions is how do you quantify bullying? It could even be as simple as a rolling of the eyes," said Dale Davis, a spokesman for schools in DeKalb County, Ga., where Herrera committed suicide.
District officials have said since soon after the boy's death that there was no evidence that Herrera was bullied, and that outside factors including the death of a close relative influenced him to take his life.
Herrera's death in mid-April came barely two weeks after Sirdeaner Walker found her son Carl hanged in her Springfield, Mass., home. The 11-year-old had complained of teasing almost immediately after arriving at his new charter school, she said.
Parents in Illinois likewise pointed to bullies after three suicides there in February: a 10-year-old boy hanged himself in a restroom stall in a suburban Chicago school, an 11-year-old boy was found dead in Chatham, south of Springfield, and a father found his 11-year-old daughter hanged in a closet of their Chicago home.
Dr. Diahann Meekins Moore, associate director for psychiatric services at the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, cautioned that it's unclear whether bullying could be considered a primary cause in those deaths or in any suicide.
Who bears the responsibility?
All the same, every suicide with a hint of bullying, every school rampage involving a shooter who claims to have been bullied renews the debate over whether anyone can curb what most consider a harsh and inevitable part of childhood, and if so, who bears that responsibility.
"A lot of this has to be handled in the home," said Peter Daboul, chair of the board of trustees at New Leadership, the Massachusetts school where her son was a 6th grader.
Teachers there will receive training on spotting childhood depression and bullying, he said, "but you also have the family unit where these kids are hopefully taught the difference between right and wrong."
Sirdeaner Walker said reminding a child that they're loved at home is less effective when they're being teased in the classroom.
"I can say that all the time," Walker said. "But again, I have to send my child back to the school."