Punishment won’t stop bullying, we need to address root causes

More than three million students are bullied every year in American schools, a heartbreaking number that translates to more than a quarter of kids in grades 6-12 and those are just the targets. Nearly 70 percent of students report having witnessed cruel and humiliating behavior.

The bill currently before the New Jersey state legislature that would tighten our state’s already stiff anti-bullying laws, and while I understand the bill’s intent, I’m concerned that the proposed legislation does both too much and not enough. Harsh punishments are not a proven deterrent, not least because bullies are often acting out of their own pain, and when law enforcement becomes involved, young people all too frequently get trapped in a school-to-prison pipeline – and for victims, the damage has already been done.

We’ve begun to understand that bullying can be devastating for victims, and that bullies must face consequences – but it’s imperative that we also understand that taking action after the fact is not enough. It’s not enough for those living with bullying’s effects, from physical injuries to mental illness to suicidal ideation, and it wasn’t enough for my son Tyler, who, after being viciously cyberbullied on his college campus, died by suicide at age 18.

It’s not enough to punish; we must prevent.

Rather than focusing our efforts on producing increasingly harsh penalties for behavior that has already occurred, we need to foster deep-seated cultural change to prevent the behavior all together. From their first day in school, young people need to learn that bullying is unacceptable, and that we will be there to help stop it. We need to train teachers and students in prevention strategies, from encouraging respect for all people, to techniques for disrupting harassment in real time.

This means that we must teach our children not just good manners, but genuine empathy. Being able to imagine the world from the perspective of another person is both a skill and a gift, one that encourages young people not only to reconsider potentially cruel behavior, but also to recognize the needs of victims and rather than stand by as a witness, to stand up as an ally.

It’s not enough to simply tell children all this, of course; we must also model respectful behavior. Teachers, parents, and administrators must actively listen to and validate the experiences of the students in their care. We need to actively create environments of respect and kindness for children everywhere: in the classroom, on the playing field and online.

Ultimately, though, we need to open the door to healing and transformation, neither of which are advanced by harsh punitive measures. This means providing mental health care not only to students who are bullied, but also to those doing the bullying. A recent study conducted by the University of Texas analyzed data from 4,300 children across three states and found that perpetrators were 41 percent more likely to suffer violent injuries outside of school than other students. People who are hurt often hurt others in turn.

To be clear: those who are cruel to others need to know that bullying has consequences. We dare not ignore or dismiss cruel or humiliating behavior; fair, consistent remediation is essential. I don’t question the intent behind the bill currently before our lawmakers, nor do I doubt the experiences of those who support it.

But we must meet students where they are, investigate the root causes of their bullying behavior ­– whether it be their home life, emotional or psychological trauma, etc. – and give them the space and safety to be vulnerable and introspective.

When my son died, I was overwhelmed with a kind of grief that I could never have imagined. Devastation is an inadequate word; for a long time, I was in a space of deep, dark despair. I cannot keep my son safe today. I cannot bring him back, or undo the damage done to him. Nothing I do today will change the past.

But I can change the future. I can join hands with survivors of bullying and their loved ones, with teachers and coaches, with legislators and activists to change the culture in which our children are raised, to make their world safer and their futures brighter. In 2017 we introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act before Congress, and I will continue to fight in my son’s name for legislation that serves the goal of empowering universities to care for and educate about those who are often targeted.

We must not be bystanders any longer – we must choose instead to be upstanders, people who stand up for the young people in our lives, and for all who suffer from harassment, cruelty, and humiliation.

Let’s make punishment for bullying unnecessary and prevent bullying in the first place.

The Tyler Clementi Foundation works to prevent bullying behavior before it starts by providing interventions meant to reach students on the first day of school. The foundation was named for Jane’s son, Tyler, a Rutgers freshman who died in 2010 of suicide after he was viciously cyberbullied on campus.