CHEBEAGUE ISLAND – On May 3, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, signed an antibullying law. It was heralded as a way to prevent harassment that has driven some youngsters to suicide.

While the aim of the law is certainly laudable, there are two questions that should be posed regarding this particular approach to the problem of bullying.

First, are there likely negative consequences to a law against bullying? And second, is there an alternative approach that is at least as effective, if not more?

If both questions can be answered in the affirmative, then laws against bullying should at least be viewed with some skepticism.

With respect to likely negative consequences, bullying often takes a verbal form, as opposed to a physical threat. Laws addressing such speech run up against our constitutionally protected free speech.

To the extent a student cannot call another “fat” or “short,” the free speech of the first student could have been abridged. In any case, such things should be handled by educators and parents, not by the police.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. A law against verbal bullying is necessarily vague when any statute should be precise about what is being outlawed.

For example, a recent article points out that the Massachusetts law “defines one form of bullying as ‘repeated use’ of a written, verbal or physical act that ’causes physical or emotional harm to the victim.’ “

that subjective standard, said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, “a student who calls another student ‘loser’ twice on the school bus and hurts the youngster’s feelings could qualify as a bully” — and thus also become a criminal.

Besides weakening free speech and being vague, antibullying laws constitute an intrusion of the government into our private affairs. The Massachusetts law stipulates that all students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, “participate” (whatever that means) every year in an antibullying curriculum.

Who will run such curriculums? What will they be paid? How much time will be spent? What if a student doesn’t attend? The entire approach invites the creation of layers of bureaucracy. The lawyers will love it.

Is there an alternative to antibullying legislation? A lesson can be learned from an area of behavioral psychology called systematic desensitization, usually used to cure phobias.

Students could be gradually inoculated against bullying over the course of their education, as follows. At an early age, and in a structured setting, students would be exposed to very mild forms of bullying for short periods. For example, for one minute a student might be told, by other students, “You’re not too attractive.” And for one minute the student could respond to the criticism (“And your IQ is below average”).

Over the years the forms of criticism would gradually increase, as would their duration. And students would learn to fight back in an appropriate manner.

the time a student reached 12th grade, he or she should be able to tolerate sustained intense negative criticism, and respond in a comparable manner. Being called names would be no cause for concern, because the words would roll away like water off a duck’s back.

Consider Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who killed herself because of bullying. According to one article, “She told a friend that she was ‘not a tough girl’ and ‘would not know how to fight,’ and at one point she asked friends to surround her as she walked in the hall.”

However, being a “tough girl” is something that can be learned. And once learned, it can be used in any number of situations. If Phoebe Prince had been inoculated against bullying, she would be alive and those who bullied her would have learned that she couldn’t be toyed with.

But with antibullying laws in place, students will remain vulnerable to verbal aggression all their lives. If they feel they have been hurt they will run to the courts, which will be there like over-protective parents, ready to hug the hurt child.

Such an approach is counterproductive, but it’s the way we’re currently headed. We can do better, using the tools of behavioral psychology to fight the expansion of big government.

 

– Special to the Telegram