A recent article on CDAPress.com reports that the Coeur d'Alene school board has come up with what it considers a great idea—increased criminal penalties for "bullying" in school. Now understand that this is not a proposal to increase the school district's own standards through the increased use of detention, suspension or expulsion; this is a proposal for more minors being hauled away in handcuffs due to an accusation of "bullying."
The board wants to rally other school boards around the state to advocate a change in the state law, which already makes bullying (which it defines very broadly) an infraction. While advocates for criminal penalties such as Coeur d'Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood are quick to reassure us that such punishments would only be used in the "most egregious" cases, evidence from other states paints a very different picture.
The City Council in Carson, Calif., voted unanimously to make a third offense of bullying an automatic misdemeanor (rather than an infraction), but—get this—the law applies to children as young as 5 years old.
New Jersey student Ethan Chaplin was pulled out of school and his father's custody rights were threatened because he twirled a pencil in class. Ethan was forced to undergo a psychological evaluation before he was allowed to return to school. There's also the 7-year-old who was famously suspended for biting his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.
Considering that these actions were deemed “threatening” to their classmates, would these students have faced criminal sanctions under the enhanced anti-bullying penalties the Coeur d'Alene school board wants to enact in Idaho?
In a case involving 16- and 17-year-olds exchanging texts containing nude photos of the 17-year-old, all three are now facing felony charges with maximum sentences of between 80 and 160 years in prison. Two 16-year-old students in Connecticut were recently arrested for posting (non-nude) photos of fellow students to an anonymous Instagram account.
Bullying can certainly have negative effects on young people, but so can a criminal record. Perhaps instead of trying to combat bullying by pushing more children into our already overcrowded criminal justice system, the Coeur d'Alene school board ought to examine the results of an experiment conducted in New Zealand. When the bulk of playground rules were suspended, incidents of bullying all but disappeared.
These results confirm that, as always, the answer to problems is not more government or more rules, but more individual liberty.