Delaware looks to stronger anti-bullying law

A proposed bill, which remains numberless for now, is at the center of a renewed statewide push against bullying in Delaware.

Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden unveiled the details of the bill during a news conference Friday morning.

“Bullying leads to other violent crime and other violent behavior. It’s a revolving door. Often times those that are bullied end up bullying. This is a cycle that we must end and we must take seriously,” Biden admonished.

According to a draft of the bill, bullying is defined as “any intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act or actions against another student, school volunteer or school employee” that creates a hostile, threatening or abusive school environment.

Furthermore, the bill details a three-pronged approach that involves local school districts, the state and the Special Olympics. The first, focused on reporting all incidents, substantiated and unsubstantiated, to the state and parents.

“What this bill does is require the Department of Education to do random audits each year of schools to ensure that the schools are properly investigating, and properly reporting bullying allegations. And we need to do this because we know from existing state statistics that a lot of schools are underreporting bullying,” said Lt. Gov. Denn.

“In Laurel Middle School, last year, the last academic year, there were 38 incidents of bullying reported from Laurel to the DOE. William Penn High School, which represents well over 2,000 students, zero cases of bullying reported, zero,” said Biden.

But it just doesn’t add up for the Attorney General, who says his office fields calls daily to its bullying hotline (800-220-5414).

“Four people called this morning, about bullying, to our office. Although in 2010, 2011, there are only 698 incidents reported to the Department of Education. That just doesn’t bear reality.”

The second part of the bill, which deals with cyber bullying, is significantly more complicated for lawmakers.

“The challenge is that there are complicated legal obstacles to regulating students’ off-campus speech. And around the country, and here in Delaware, efforts by local school districts to try to regulate cyber bullying have been opposed and subjected to litigation by civil liberties advocates,” said Denn, a self-described civil liberties advocate. “I’m just not prepared to accept the idea that the First Amendment protects eighth graders posting vicious videos of each other on YouTube or publishing venom about their peers on Facebook.”

Lastly, Denn says the measure aims to provide schools with better anti-bullying programming–a tough sell given budgets are tight at the local and state level, that is, unless it’s free.

“Fortunately our friends at Special Olympics have stepped forward to help… What they have offered our schools, at no charge, is a set of high quality, off the shelf educational materials for students on the subject of bullying.”

Bullying statistics

Attorney General Beau Biden says national statistics show:

1 out 3 middle and high school students report being bullied
Nearly 1 million kids are cyber bullied each year
160,000 students skip school each day due to bullying

Rep. Terry Schooley, D-Newark, is the legislation’s primary sponsor. She cites Delaware numbers according to the latest “Kids Count” report:

A third of all 8th and 11th graders say they said something that hurt another student in the past 30 days
28 percent of 8th graders, 22 percent of 11th graders hit someone to hurt them in the past 30 days

“Children and youth who are bullied are more likely than other children to be depressed, lonely, anxious, have low self-esteem, feel unwell, actually have health issues and think about suicide. Students who are bullied may fear going to school and using the bathroom or riding on a school bus,” said Schooley. “Research shows that bullying can be a sign of other serious antisocial or violent behavior. Children and youth who frequently bully their peers are more likely than others to get into frequent fights, to be injured in a fight, to vandalize or steal property, to drink alcohol, smoke, be truant from school, drop out of school and carry a weapon.”

What’s next

Later this month, Denn said he and Biden will announce details of a process he says will result in a statewide cyber bullying policy they hope to put into place at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

“The goal is going to be to have one of the toughest cyber bullying policies that the law and Constitution allow. Our local school districts need our help with this issue and they’re going to get it,” said Denn.

Meantime, the legislation, which will be introduced when the General Assembly is back in session, is still gathering co-sponsors. However, Rep. Schooley is confident it will pass without much opposition.

“It’s kind of like child abuse. You know, in child abuse we have legislation that says you report all reported incidents. They’re substantiated, they’re looked at. This bill adds that extra piece in that all reported incidents now are going to be looked at, and then further followed up with substantiation,” said Schooley. “It’s gotta become uncool to bully and cool to tell that somebody’s been bullied, or that someone is bullying. We need to get that message across to staff and to students so it becomes normative that people notice that bullying is going on.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.