In response to rising rates of youth suicide, several states are considering legislation designed to criminalize bullying, despite trend lines indicating that bullying has significantly decreased over the past decade. However, the last round of federal data collection shows little correlation between bullying and suicide, with rates of bullying falling from 32 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2015 and rates of youth suicide more than doubling. Despite these trends, several states have proposed criminalization of bullying behavior, which may do more harm than good to everyone involved—both to the children being bullied and those who engage in bullying.
Pending or active policies (for example, in Missouri, Maryland, and Texas) threaten jail time for bullying in the hope that such consequences will prevent both bullying and suicide. “Grace’s Law” in Maryland and other such policies often bear the names of children who have died by suicide. While communities need support to reduce both bullying and suicide, making bullying a crime will not achieve either goal.
Efforts to criminalize bullying are not grounded in the extensive research on what works best to address the behavior. That body of research—summarized in a comprehensive 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—strongly concludes that punishment alone does not change bullying behavior. Suspensions, expulsions, and criminalization will not only fail to fix the problem, but may cause more harm to children. In a recent analysis of reported suicides in 18 states, the percentage of cases that were reportedly precipitated by school disciplinary problems was the same as the percentage precipitated by bullying (9 percent). Children who bully others but have also been bullied themselves are most at risk of negative outcomes from bullying. Criminalizing bullying—thereby increasing youth contact with the juvenile justice system—also places children at risk of trauma, academic failure, and incarceration during adulthood, among other things.
Criminalization could also reduce the likelihood that children who have been bullied will receive the support they actually need. Making bullying a criminal act may result in more intensive scrutiny of what exactly constitutes bullying: For example, what seems like bullying to some could seem like playful banter to others. Adults might be more likely to overlook bullying they perceive as less serious if they think that the consequences to the child doing the bullying would be too severe.
Criminalization also fails to address the root causes of bullying behavior. Every case of bullying is different, and the reasons behind why youth bully depend on both contextual factors (such as school climate) and individual experiences. Adverse childhood experiences, including witnessing violence and household drug and alcohol abuse, are linked to perpetration of bullying. Recent research also suggests that poor nutrition significantly increases the likelihood that a child will engage in bullying behaviors. School meal programs, school climate initiatives, and trauma-informed care all have the potential to prevent bullying by addressing these needs.