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Advocacy In Action

Antibullying Initiatives: An Update on Federal Legislation

By Kelly M. Vaillancourt

Bullying in schools has taken center stage in public debate surrounding school legislation and policy over the past decade. Arguably, the catalyst for the increased attention to the issue of bullying was the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999. This incident led to the creation of a host of new legislation aimed at combating school violence and addressing bullying in the schools, a trend that has recently been reignited by a number of highly visible suicides linked to bullying and harassment. Over the past 10 years, the body of research documenting the negative and long-term consequences of bullying has grown substantially, placing increased pressure on schools, school systems, and governments to develop and implement effective policies and practices to address bullying. As school psychologists, we are in an excellent position to help design and implement universal systems of support so that all students feel safe and supported. In addition, it is our ethical responsibility to ensure that all students have the chance to learn in an environment that is free from discrimination, harassment, aggression, violence, and abuse. Part of this responsibility involves advocating for legislation and policy development designed to reduce bullying in our schools. This article will provide an update on the activities happening at the federal level and within NASP so that you can become a more active advocate for all students.

What is Bullying?

Dr. Dan Owleus, a leader in bullying research, defines bullying as a relationship that is marked by a real or perceived power imbalance where one or more people act aggressively over time with the intent to harm others. Bullying can be physical (e.g., hitting, taking someone's belongings), verbal (e.g., making threats, name calling), relational (e.g., spreading rumors, purposefully excluding someone), and electronic (e.g., texting, social media outlets). Although it can be difficult to tell the difference, teasing is not considered bullying. Teasing usually involves two or more people who are acting in a way that seems fun and playful, the teasing goes both ways, and it does not involve the intent to hurt others. Conversely, bullying often involves those who are not friends and the behavior is one-sided (Owleus, 1993).

There are large numbers of students who report being bullied. Results of the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 20% of students had experienced some form of bullying in the past year (CDC, 2010). Most students (85%) who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender reported being verbally harassed, 40% reported being physically harassed, and 19% reported being physically assaulted at school because of their sexual orientation (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010). In addition, students with disabilities are significantly more likely to be victims of bullying when compared to their nondisabled peers (National Council on Disability, 2011). There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that bullying can result in long-term psychological difficulties such as depression, anxiety, aggression, and increased risk of suicide (Klomek, Marrocoo, Kleinman, Schoneeld, & Gould, 2007). There are academic consequences as well. Students who are chronically bullied show decreased interest in school, have trouble concentrating, feel less connected and engaged in school, and demonstrate lower academic achievement (You et al., 2008). The negative outcomes associated with bullying extend beyond the victims. Students who engage in bullying behavior have higher rates of substance abuse, poorer social skills, increased mental health difficulties, and a higher risk for criminal involvement as adults (O'Brennan, Bradshaw, and Sawyer, 2009). For some students, the situation is so bad that they skip school entirely. All students deserve to attend school in a safe, respectful, and caring environment that supports academic achievement, mental health, and social–emotional development. As school psychologists, we need to work with all stakeholders to support efforts surrounding the development and implementation of effective legislation, policies, and practices to appropriately address bulling in our schools.

What is Being Done?

To address the growing concerns surrounding the implications of bullying, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cohosted the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit in 2010. This event brought together government officials, researchers, policy makers, and education practitioners to discuss ways to effectively address bullying in the schools. There had been considerable discussion among state and local officials, educators, and policy makers as to how to create or improve antibullying legislation; the bullying summit further highlighted the need for more comprehensive information regarding bullying legislation in the states and how this legislation translated into policy and practice in the schools. Furthermore, the Office for Civil Rights released a memo reminding schools that some instances of bullying and harassment may violate federal antidiscrimination laws. It states:

School districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department's implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees. (U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2010)

Following the release of this guidance from the Office for Civil Rights, and in response to requests for assistance from state and local districts regarding appropriate legislation and policy, the Department of Education released a technical assistance memo (United States Department of Education [USDOE], 2010) detailing 11 key components listed below that encompassed their framework for bullying legislation.

  • Purpose Statement: Outlines the negative effects that bullying has on students and student engagement and explicitly states that bullying is unacceptable and every incident should be taken seriously.
  • Statement of Scope: Indicates that the legislation or policy covers all conduct that occurs on the school campus, at school sponsored activities and events (on or off campus), on school-provided transportation, through school-owned technology, or that otherwise creates a significant disruption to the school environment.
  • Specification of Prohibited Conduct: Provides a specific definition of bullying that includes a clear definition of cyberbullying. The definition of bullying includes a nonexclusive list of specific behaviors that constitute bullying and specifies that bullying includes the intent to harm. The definition should be easily understood and interpreted by school boards, policy makers, administrators, staff, students and their families, and the community. The definition should also be consistent with other federal, state, and local laws.
  • Enumeration of Specific Characteristics: Explains that bullying may include, but is not limited to, acts based upon real or perceived characteristics of students (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation). It also makes clear that bullying does not have to be based on any particular characteristic.
  • Development and Implementation of LEA Policies: Directs each LEA to engage in a collaborative process with all interested stakeholders to develop and implement a policy prohibiting bullying that best addresses local conditions.
  • Components of LEA Policies: The LEA policy includes a definition of bullying that is consistent with the definition specified in state law, a procedure to report incidents of bullying (including a process to submit information anonymously), and designation of the school personnel responsible for receiving and investigating reports. The LEA policy should outline a procedure for investigating and responding to a report of bullying, including immediate intervention strategies for protecting the victim, notification of the reported victim's and alleged bully's parents, and if appropriate, notification of law enforcement officials, as well as a procedure of keeping written records of each reported incident and the resolution. LEA policy should include a detailed description of a range of consequences and sanctions for bullying as well as procedures to refer individuals to counseling and mental health services as appropriate.
  • Review of Local Policies: Includes a provision that local policies will be regularly reviewed by the state to ensure the goals of the statute are met.
  • Communication Plan: Includes a plan for notifying students, families, and staff of the components of the bullying policy.
  • Training and Preventative Education: Includes a provision for school districts to provide training on bullying prevention, identification, and response and encourages districts to implement school- and community-wide bullying prevention programs.
  • Transparency and Monitoring: Includes provisions for LEAs to report the number of reported bullying incidents and the action taken, and to make these data available to the public.
  • Statement of Rights to Other Legal Recourse: Includes a statement that victims may seek other legal remedies.

Department of Education initiated a study to examine the extent to which state bullying laws and policies addressed the 11 key components identified by the U.S. Department of Education considered to be the most important (USDOE, 2011). The goal of this study was to summarize the status of state bullying laws and policies; it did not examine the effectiveness of any specific piece of legislation or policy of reducing bullying. However, this report did highlight the wide variance that exists in bullying legislation and policy across the United States. Although 49 states now have some sort of antibullying legislation, due to the wide discrepancy in laws and policies across states and school districts, many have argued for the need for federal antibullying legislation to ensure that every student has the opportunity to attend school in an environment free of bullying and harassment, regardless of where they live.

Proposed Federal Legislation

There are currently two pieces of proposed legislation designed to address bullying and harassment in schools that NASP is actively supporting in conjunction with many of our coalition partners. President Obama just recently announced his administration's endorsement of each of these pieces of legislation and its support for addressing th issue of bullying and harassment in schools. There is still a lot of work that needs to occur before these bills will become law, but with continued advocacy, we can get a few steps closer to ensuring that all schools are implementing policy and practices designed to reduce bullying and harassment.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA, S. 506/H.R. 1648) seeks to help address the problem of bullying and harassment by ensuring that schools and districts use comprehensive and effective student conduct policies that include clear prohibitions regarding these behaviors. This legislation would also require that schools and districts maintain and publically report data regarding incidents of bullying and harassment. SSIA would establish a definition of bullying and harassment in federal law and would require schools that receive federal funding to specifically prohibit bullying and harassment based on a student's actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion. According to the analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 17 states enumerate characteristics in the law (USOE, 2011). Enumeration of specific characteristics refers to language that conveys explicit protection for certain groups or classes of people, or for anyone who is bullied based on personal characteristics (i.e., physical appearance). Advocates for enumeration argue that specifically naming groups helps to safeguard populations of students most vulnerable to bullying. Advocates have also pushed hard for enumeration on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students who have high rates of bullying but have no protection under current federal civil rights law.

In addition, this piece of legislation would ensure that schools and districts develop prevention strategies and provide professional development so that staff members are more effectively able to prevent, identify, and respond to instances of bullying. Research demonstrates that school personnel are often not aware of how to effectively address bullying, and nearly one third of teachers report that they rarely intervene when homophobic or other slurs are overheard (Allen, 2010; Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010). In order for strong legislation and policies to be effective, the intentions need to be translated into daily practice, and NASP strongly advocates for school psychologists to be involved in bullying prevention initiatives.

As previously mentioned, there are currently laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. However, there is no specific law that extends these protections to students who are discriminated against because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. The Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA, S. 3390/HR 4530) ensures that federal protections and avenues for redress are afforded to those who are discriminated against on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation. SNDA would also include bullying and harassment in the definition of discrimination.

What Can You Do?

The easiest and fastest way to advocate for antibullying legislation is to visit the Advocacy Action Center (http://capwiz.com/naspweb/home) and send a letter to your elected officials. As mentioned before, legislation and policy is only effective if it translates into effective practices within schools and school districts. NASP has a variety of resources regarding effective ways to address bullying, and as you wind down from this school year and prepare for the next, share these resources with your building principals and district administrators. This can be an excellent way to begin a dialogue about how to implement or improve upon initiatives designed to prevent and address bullying so that all students feel safe and supported at school. Finally, if you want to really refine your advocacy skills and get more in-depth information on public policies related to education, school safety, and school mental health, attend the GW/NASP Public Policy Institute July 11–13. Full information can be found at http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/ppi/2012/index.aspx. You will hear from a number of researchers, Department of Education officials, and other policy makers and gain critical knowledge and skills that can be used to make policy and legislative goals that promote school psychology and help make you a more effective advocate in action.


Allen, K. P. (2010). A bullying intervention system: reducing risk and creating support for aggressive students. Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 199–209.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Youth risk behavior surveillance 2009– United States, 59(SS-5).

Klomek, A. B., Marrocoo, F., Kleinman, M., Schoneeld, I. S., & Gould, M. S. (2007). Bullying, depression, and suicidality in adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46, 40–49.

Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A, Diaz, E. M., & Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation's school. New York, NY: GLSEN.

National Council on Disability. (2011). Bullying and students with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.ncd.gov/publications/2011/March92011

O'Brennan, L., Bradshaw, C., & Sawyer, A. (2009). Examining developmental differences in the social-emotional problems among frequent bullies, victims, and bully/victims. Psychology in the Schools, 46(2), 100–115.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

United States Department of Education. (2010). Dear colleague letter: Antibullying policies: Examples of provisions in state laws. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/secletter/101215.html

United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2010). Dear colleague letter: Harassment and bullying. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201010.pdf

United States Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. (2011). Analysis of state bullying laws and policies, Washington, DC: Author.

You, S., Furlong, M., Felix. E., Sharkey, J., Tanigawa, D., & Green, J. (2008). Relations among school connectedness, hope, life satisfaction, and bullying victimization. Psychology in the Schools, 45(5), 446–460.

Kelly M. Vaillancourt, NCSP, is NASP Director of Government Relations.