Anti-Bullying: Can the Schools Be Trusted?

One of the new initiatives of government is to act against the bullying of children.  As a general matter, I believe that concern about bullying is a force for good.  As a child, I experienced a little bit of bullying (as do virtually all children) but saw others who were treated much worse.  From my own experience and observations, I can attest to how harmful such bullying can be for a child.

One might argue that parents should be the ones who address bullying but of course parents cannot do the job entirely.  They are often not aware that the bullying is occurring and my guess is that the children who are bullied often had parents who were bullied and therefore would not really know how to address it.  Thus, additional protection would be helpful and government schools appear to be well positioned to intervene.

Unfortunately, government does a poor job of most things and bullying is likely to be one of them.  The standard litany of public choice problems ranging from poor incentives to do a good job, poor knowledge about how to do that job, and the power of special interests and ideological extremists apply in this area no less than others.  And the more jobs that government undertakes, the less likely they are to do each one of them well.

Low test schools and poor learning are just a small part of the problems with government schools.  There are, of course, the problems of teachers unions and disciplining bad teachers.  And most pertinently, there are the absurdities of policies such as zero tolerance.  Thus, no one should be surprised if the schools do a poor job of policing against bullying.

My own experience with my child illustrates some of the problems.  When my child was in 5th grade, we were called to school, as he was being sent home for the day for fighting.  My child was very nervous, since he had never been suspended before and he knew we took schooling very seriously.

When we arrived, he told us that the other child had started the altercation, hitting him.  Our child had merely defended himself.  The principal confirmed that that was her understanding as well, but the school policy against fighting required her to suspend him.  This was, of course, absurd.  It taught our child to be a coward and not to defend himself.  And it punished the innocent.  Whatever the reason for the policy, it was not the decision of an institution that could be trusted.

My child was very surprised when we did not discipline him.  In fact, we told him he did the right thing.  I like to believe he learned an important lesson that day — that his parents did not believe that everything the school said was correct.

In my next post, I will discuss a recent example of the application of an anti-bullying law.