An article in today's Washington Post reports on a program being used in some British elementary schools to address bullying. ("Simple Program Wards Off Bullying in Schools," November 7, 2010)
American schools that have tried to tackle this serious problem have often resorted to aggressive anti-bullying codes that include lists of forbidden words. Such an approach can raise troublesome First Amendment issues because, as the Supreme Court has observed, students do not shed their right to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate. Also, these days bullying at school is often precipitated by speech that occurs elsewhere, such as through social media generated at home.
Remarkably, the British experiment hardly ever mentions bullying. Instead, it focuses on placing students into rotating teams of two where they can spend a few minutes each week getting to know each other. The rules are simple: listen, don't interrupt, show respect. The program has yielded remarkable results, including dramatic declines in bullying behaviors. Some American schools, specifically in Texas and in the Midwest, have begun to incorporate this approach into their anti-bullying campaigns.
A familiar First Amendment axiom holds that the best remedy for the speech we hate is more speech. It may be that the most effective way to shove bullying out of our schools is to promote discussion between our students--ironically, discussion about things other than bullying.