AUGUSTA – Nobody likes a bully, but who is willing to speak out against one? Despite frequent reports in the media about the harmful — even deadly — effects of bullying, change has been incremental in terms of real action to stop bullying in schools, in cyberspace and in our communities.

The Maine Children’s Alliance (MCA) supports the latest effort to address this problem: Two bills before the state legislature aim to prohibit bullying among our young people.

LD 1237 spells out what counts as “harassment, intimidation or bullying,” and outlines a process by which Maine’s public schools can adopt and better implement anti-bullying policies.

LD 980 focuses on cyberbullying, describing it as “deliberate repeated and pervasive bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication” — the category of bullying that has been linked to recent suicides among young victims across the country.

According to figures in MCA’s 2011 Maine Kids Count data report, reports of bullying among high school students are higher than the national average. Almost a quarter — 22.4 percent — of Maine teens said that they have been bullied on school property during the last year. That’s higher than the national rate of 19.9 percent.

Understanding this data is tricky, since an increase in reports of bullying could be seen as a positive — it reflects a growing societal awareness of bullying as well as a growing willingness to report it.

But even if this is the case, something is amiss when almost one in every four high school students reports being bullied while at school.

Bullying isn’t just one kid shoving another kid on the playground. It encompasses all sorts of antisocial behavior that can range from physical violence to verbal abuse to harassment online.

It often reflects intolerance of anything “different,” from race to sexual orientation to social standing. It can be over something seemingly minor, yet can cause the victim to avoid school, become physically ill, depressed or even suicidal.

Over the years, many schools have adopted anti-bullying policies and many try to enforce them. Existing civil rights groups in the schools may also have anti-bullying as part of their mission.

But school policies and enforcement can be spotty. Teachers and administrators may be intimidated by the prospect of confronting bullies and their parents. Our culture discourages “tattling.”

Yet on the flip side, our culture encourages competition, which when taken to an extreme, can lead to aggressive behavior.

Sports play a positive and central role in our society, but can also create an atmosphere — among children and their parents — where youth are supposed to conform to the tough jock image.

Adults need to teach and model ways to compete without crossing the line into negative or harmful behavior to others.

Enforcement of anti-bullying policies often means that a student must be suspended or expelled. This is not always an ideal solution, either, which explains why school staff shy away from enforcement.

A young person who is bullying others needs to be supported, not removed from the structure of school.

He or she should not be rewarded by getting out of school work or put out on the streets where his or her behavior may be reinforced by a negative peer group.

Schools do need to pay attention to the troubling rise in bullying, particularly now that there are so many new means to do so electronically.

But schools should not bear full responsibility for the problem: Parents, family members, and our communities must create an environment where bullying is simply unacceptable.

Anti-bullying legislation is a good and timely attempt to address the problem in Maine.

Other solutions are out there, including Safe Schools For All, a Maine-based anti-bullying group that works with schools to reduce peer aggression through training and intervention programs.

We need to do all that we can to stem the rise of bullying in all its forms.

Whether by enacting legislation, enforcing school policy, training educators or teaching at home, we need to act collectively to show our young people that it is never OK to make life miserable for another human being.

– Special to the Press Herald