Bullying has existed for at least as long as organized schooling, if not social interaction in general. So have efforts to stop it; the most recent round has come both from the courts and, increasingly, the music world. Inspirational singles–Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Selena Gomez’s “Who Says,” P!nk’s “Perfect,” and others–have more of a chart presence now than in years, in part because of the traction of writer Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. Enough have arrived for MTV’s Video Music Awards to launch the Best Video with a Message category, and at least one new track seems to surface per new album.
These efforts haven’t come from nowhere, though; they’re direct responses to a few high-profile tragedies. Most recently, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who identified as gay, committed suicide on September 18 after being continually bullied. His case, which followed others like that of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, who committed suicide after being bullied and after his roommate secretly filmed him having sex, drew much attention both from media outlets and from figures like Lady Gaga.
“The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling,” Gaga wrote on Twitter after Rodemeyer’s death. “I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone’s life. Bullying must become be illegal. It is a hate crime.”
Lady Gaga later met with Barack Obama at a fundraiser, as she had said she would, to ask him about his anti-bullying work. No new policies or proposed legislation came out of their summit–Obama, who described meeting Gaga as “intimidating,” reiterated his administration’s efforts such as contributions to the It Gets Better project and website/outreach effort stopbullying.gov–but Gaga has since continued her push to end hate, most recently by endorsing the anti-bullying website WeStopHate.org. “In light of Jamie Rodenmeyer’s death, I encourage everyone all over the world to come visit [WeStopHate.org] and learn about how we can combat bullying and the obstacles that young people experience every day,” she said in a video message to founder Emily-Anne Rigal on October 7.
Gaga isn’t the only artist to address bullying outside song lately–British artist and former X Factor contestant Cher Lloyd has explained her experience as a victim of bullying in recent interviews, and 50 Cent’s upcoming book Playground (a YA novel) addresses bullying–but she’s by far the most prominent. But could bullying really become classified as a hate crime, as Lady Gaga is advocating? We spoke to some experts.
Few dispute that bullying is a serious problem with serious consequences, especially for LGBT teens. According to a 2009 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education network, 9 out of 10 LGBT middle and high school students surveyed said they experienced some form of harassment in the last year.
“Gay kids are in this difficult position right now,” said Emily Bazelon, a writer for Slate and author of an upcoming book about bullying, Sticks and Stones. “In some ways, there’s a message that it’s totally great for them to come out, but depending on where they live, the kids around them are not ready to accept them. They’re on the firing line in a way that’s hard for them.”
Most substantial anti-bullying legislation has happened at the state level than at the federal level, with the majority affecting school districts. Almost every state has some form of anti-bullying law, the problem is defining what constitutes bullying and which consequences are appropriate.
“If a child is teased and it goes away and it’s fine and it’s resolved, there’s no need to take this up. It’s when it’s that consistent, constant harassment and intimidation for a child to not feel safe anymore,” said New Jersey legislator Valerie Vainieri Huttle, one of the sponsors of New Jersey’s recent Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. “It can be violent–it’s words and it’s everything. When a child doesn’t feel safe anymore to go to school, and it interferes with the environment in school, that’s when they cross the line.”
New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which was signed by Governor Chris Christie on January 5 and which first took effect for the 2011-12 school year, requires school districts start anti-bullying education and implements a mandatory statewide “Week of Respect” every October to teach students about bully prevention. (Private schools are not directly affected but encouraged to follow suit.)
More pertinently, it requires public school teachers to undergo training about bullying and harassment and requires employees and administrations to report cases of bullying–cases that could lead to suspension or expulsion of the student–or face consequences. The bill also expands the definition of “bullying” to include any physical or emotional harm, the creation of “a hostile environment” and the “infringement on the rights of students.”
“With this, we’re hoping that we can change the culture of kids and regulate the behavior of school. I think the other part, which defines why this is such a tough bill, is that it doesn’t stop after three o’clock,” Huttle said.
Described as the strictest policy at the state level, the bill is one that sponsors like Huttle hope other states will emulate. Similar bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, and Huttle said the state was reaching out to New York and Pennsylvania-—with federal regulation on bullying in schools being the ultimate goal.
“Obama had a summit on bullying, and so when we have people from the White House to Congress and the State House finally saying that this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, it highlights the need,” she said. “Bills can do so much: you can’t legislate morality, but you can try to regulate the behavior.”
The U.S. Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability.”
For some, though, this definition doesn’t quite fit bullying. “Bullying is just the latest term, and it’s a term that everybody understands,” said lawyer and author Wendy Kaminer, who has served as a staff attorney in the New York City Mayor’s Office and examined the recent push for anti-bullying legislation for The Atlantic. “People at the state and federal level are beginning to write it into laws now, and they are defining it more broadly than the Supreme Court has defined harassment so that it really reaches a lot of behavior that should not be subject to state regulation.”
One wrinkle is which behavior can be regulated in the first place, and where. Supreme Court precedent, per 1969′s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, says that officials can only punish students for speech outside school if it substantially disrupts behavior at school. Then, however, you have to decide what counts as bullying or harassment and what doesn’t–behavior like fighting may be clear-cut, but words are less so, Bazelon said, adding that at the criminal level, it gets even more difficult. In order for criminal behavior to be prosecuted easily, she said, the behavior has to be defined as something most people don’t do, rather than something widespread and not easily enforceable like speech.
“When you popularize these very broad notions, that we all need to be nice to each other, that bullying includes any kind of instability, that if you think you’ve been bullied, then you’ve been bullied–there’s no real objective standard to evaluate whether bullying has occurred, and it tends to lump everything together,” Kaminer said. “If you look at somebody cross-eyed, then you’re accused of bullying him just as you might be if you were calling him names and throwing things at him.”
That said, there’s potentially great value in people as prominent as Lady Gaga calling attention to bullying. Kaminer, although she said Lady Gaga’s focus on a law was “wrong-headed,” acknowledged that the artist was “in a position where she can do a lot to help change cultural attitudes, and that’s very important.”
It’s even more important when considering how wide a reach Lady Gaga has, both online (millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere), during televised events like the Grammys and VMAs and through her music. Millions of people undoubtedly see her as a role model, one whose words and suggestions are worth emulating.
“People sometimes grasp for actions to take in moments like this,” Bazelon said. “Maybe a hate crime isn’t the right thing, but Lady Gaga saying it’s really terrible what happened to this kid, and other people should think before they say mean stuff–that is helpful.”