Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New York’s Cynical Pretense of an Anti-Cyber-Bullying Law

About thirty years ago, New York State, where I lived at the time, was considering raising the drinking age back to 21. The legal age had been dropped to 18 during the Vietnam War, as there wasn’t really a good rebuttal to the argument that it didn’t make sense that 19-year-olds could be drafted and sent half-way around the world to fight and die in an unpopular war, but they couldn’t have a beer.

When the war was over, however, that argument went away, and politicians of all stripes, pressured by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other such organizations, felt the need to seem to be doing something about the fact that far too many people were being killed and injured because of drunk drivers. The key word here is seem. Raising the drinking age may well have been a net minus in terms of real safety: there was a short-term drop in drunk driving accidents, but that turns out to have been attributable to there being no new (legal) drinkers on the road for three years. As soon as that period was up, drunk driving rates went straight back to essentially where they had been.

And, of course, making drinking illegal for the majority of college students had little real effect on whether they drank, but rather on how they drank. Unable to have a legal drink, college students simply tagged alcohol on to an existing drug culture; the incidence of binge drinking skyrocketed.

Any reasonable person could have foreseen all this. That sentient human could also tell you how to radically reduce drunk driving: increase the penalties. $1000 fine, 7 days in jail, and loss of license for a year for a first offense; and no whining about how you’re not going to be able to get to work—you should have thought of that before you decided to start up a two-ton weapon. Ah, but that might mean that the politicians themselves and/or their fat-cat contributors could perhaps be inconvenienced after that three-martini lunch or one too many nightcaps at the country club.

Ah, but they could seem like they were trying to solve the problem if they agreed to raise the drinking age: post-adolescents seemed like a good group to pick on. They don’t vote very often, and they have no money to contribute to campaigns. And it certainly seems plausible that they’re a good part of the problem.

They weren’t, of course. In fact, the state commissioned a study to prove their case, which I heard about because my wife was working for the Cooperative Extension at the time. The study showed that, per mile driven, the people most likely to be driving drunk weren’t 18- to 20-year-olds at all, but women over 60. Oops. Needless to say, there was no attempt to restrict the drinking and/or driving habits of Aunt Matilda, and, for politically obvious reasons the report, as far as I know, was never made public. But facts seldom matter to politicians, and on they went, raising the drinking age and strutting about what public-spirited boys and girls they were.

This post isn’t really about the drinking age, of course, but about the phenomenon I just described: the felt need by some virtually all politicians to pretend to do something, even if any rational person can see through the charade. That’s why you couldn’t take nail clippers onto an airplane for several years after 9/11, for instance.

Today, we got another example. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (right) signed a bill today that the Huffington Post describes in their headline as a “Strict Measure Fighting Cyber Bullying in Schools.”


The bill is useless, in that it doesn’t actually criminalize the behavior it purports to address. There was apparently much hand-wringing about what to do if a cyber-bully is only 14 or 15. Seriously, how do these people feed themselves? You deal with a teenaged cyber-bully the same way you deal with the one who’s always picking fights or selling drugs or anything else illegal (of course, this would require the fortitude to actually make cyber-bullying illegal): you turn them over to the police. Nope, not in New York. Not even as an option, apparently.

The bill requires school employees to report to their administrations (N.B., not law enforcement) any incidents of bullying or harassment; of course, there’s a written report required, too. Schools are to be required to designate a particular administrator to receive these reports. So what we get is not merely another layer of bureaucracy, but an outright endorsement of the unseemly intrusion of schools into every aspect of their students’ lives. The bill’s proponents freely grant that most cyber-bullying happens outside school hours, when neither party is on school property. Any rational approach to the problem would start with the fact that what happens outside school is none of the school’s damned business, whether or not out-of-school behavior can be contorted to potentially cause “disruption in the learning environment,” or whatever the latest jargon might be.

Importantly, too, it’s only schools that are required to adopt this initiative. If you’re a teacher and one of your students experiences something that even the most paranoid parent or social worker might consider bullying, you’d better cover your ass and report it. If you’re the church youth minister, however, you’re under no such obligation. And since the gutless legislature couldn’t bring themselves to actually call cyber-bullying a crime, there’s really no role for the police.

This legislation, of course, purports to build bridges between the schools and law enforcement, but it really seeks to circumvent the latter. (See my recent commentary on the apparent reversals of jurisdictions between these two systems.)

Cyber-bullying is a real issue. Crafting a statute that creates substantive protections while at the same time allows for the free expression of ideas and avoids criminalizing petty grievances: this isn’t easy. A solution requires, at the very least, an honest appraisal of the situation and an honest analysis of the efficacy of the proposed solution. Needless to say, New York politicians provide neither.

70% of New York students think cyber-bullying should be a crime. Let’s start there. Then we turn legitimate cases over to the police, keep the schools out of kids’ private spheres, and make it clear that bullying in any form will not be tolerated. Yes, train teachers to be cognizant of warning signs, but those folks are paid to teach, not spy on their students.

When I first saw this story, I posted it on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, writing:
Forgive me if I think this is about as stupid a law as could be passed. Bullying still isn't a crime, but teachers (and apparently only teachers) are required to report it. All this does is further legitimize the intrusion of schools into students’ lives, provide one more form teachers have to fill out, absolve other adults from responsibility, circumvent the actual legal system, and provide false assurance that something is being done when, in fact, it isn’t. This is cynicism at its worst.
Yeah, pretty much.


Expert witness said...

We must do all we can to ensure that every child in New York State feels safe in the classroom, and this new law will help our schools create an environment that is conducive to educational success

manjushri924 said...

Nice jargon, EW. But surely you can't expect anyone to believe you're making an actual argument.