Newspaper column: Anti-bullying law may have widespread unintended consequences

In his latest book, “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Senseless Bureaucracy,” Philip K. Howard writes about how American lawmakers have abandoned all pretext of common sense and letting people just work things out. For any ill that could possibly befall anyone, there has to be a law.

“America has succumbed to its own intermediate goal. Purging official discretion, not advancing the public good, has become the goal of the Rule of Law,” Howard contends. “Better to prevent a bad choice, even at the cost of banning all good choices. Unquestioned assumptions are the most powerful forces in human affairs. If people assume something is right or wrong, they’ll act on it even to the point of self-destruction. … Americans seem content to pile society high with detailed regulations as long as they succeed in preventing anyone with responsibility from actually making a decision.”

A near-perfect illustration of this observation comes to us courtesy of the late, unlamented Nevada legislative session in the form of Senate Bill 504, described by its backers as an anti-bullying bill, one which Gov. Brian Sandoval has already signed into law.

Yes, there have been problems with school officials being less than aggressive in curbing bullying of fragile school children, in a very few cases leading to tragic outcomes, such as suicide.

But SB504 is a sweeping, all-encompassing, detailed dictation to public school officials of precisely how every imaginable offensive word, gesture or facial expression must be handled and how quickly. It leaves little to discretion or judgment. If it is perceived by the most super-sensitive or supercilious child to be an affront, it must be confronted and dealt with, without fail.

Among the myriad things this law deems to be bullying are “taunting, name-calling, belittling, mocking or use of put-downs or demeaning humor regarding the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability of a person, sex or any other distinguishing characteristic or background of a person …”

One of the law’s unintended consequences, at least we hope it was unintended, appears to be a prohibition of gender segregation — as in restrooms, locker rooms and showers.

The law prohibits “blocking access” to “any property or facility of a school” on the basis of any of the aforementioned categories, which include sex, gender identity or expression or any other distinguishing characteristic. Can’t block access to the girls’ showers just because he is not a girl.

Nevada’s Supreme Court has long held that laws are to be interpreted according the plain meaning of their texts.

“If the Legislature’s intention is apparent from the face of the statute, there is no room for construction, and this court will give the statute its plain meaning. …” a 2012 ruling declared. “Statutes should be read as a whole, so as not to render superfluous words or phrases or make provisions nugatory.” No matter how ludicrous.

A legal analysis of the law by the Alliance Defending Freedom makes much of the fact the law will force school officials to make student bathrooms and shower facilities available to students who identify with a gender other than their biological gender.

But it also claims the law violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. “While SB504 does not impose criminal sanctions, it subjects students to permanent expulsion and teachers and administrators to employment termination and loss of their licenses (and thus livelihood) if they ‘tolerate’ or fail to immediately report an allegation of bullying,” the Alliance reports. “Rather than maintain the bright lines of Nevada’s pre-SB504 anti-bullying law, SB504 ventures into the uncharted realm of punishing verbal and nonverbal behavior, including ‘gestures.’

“Vagueness in a law carrying severe sanctions may violate basic notions of due process when it fails to provide the kind of notice that will enable ordinary people to understand what conduct it prohibits or when it may authorize and even encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

The law demands the resolution of any complaint of bullying within 72 hours, certainly carrying implications for due process, fairness, thoroughness and, most importantly, justice.

School officials under this law could be tied up refereeing petty disputes among children instead of teaching them civil behavior and civics and reading and math.

Lawmakers should have left well enough alone and let responsible adults handle things.

The law of unintended consequences always prevails.

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.



19 comments on “Newspaper column: Anti-bullying law may have widespread unintended consequences

  1. Rez says:

    How about instead of making everyone else weaker, we make those ‘fragile’ kids stronger — perhaps by not protecting them from every bump and bruise in life so they can grow some ability to cope??

  2. john says:

    Absolutely awful and stupid.

  3. Winston Smith says:

    I have calculated that 57.89% of unintended consequences are actually intended.

    BTW, Tom, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries! “

  4. Steve says:

    Elementary school. My bully experience.
    After a few weeks of harassment the guy followed me into the boys room. Somehow we ended up alone in that restroom.
    It came to the inevitable physical fight. I put him down on the floor and pinned him.
    He never messed with me again.
    Moreover, it created my reputation which lasted until I graduated from High School 10 years later.

    One of the “unintended” consequences will actually be creating an environment that supports emboldens bully’s. They like the attention but the also like to make that “just you wait till later” threat. I think that threat will become more powerful in this new “anti bullying” world view we are marching into with all apparent glee.

    RIP Laura Myers, you will be missed.

  5. Rincon says:

    There’s no perfect solution for bullying. Your point about creating an atmosphere that encourages bullying is well taken Steve. At the same time, what if your episode had turned out differently? If that bully had won, then he would have essentially owned you. What would your options have been then? Perhaps the best way to deal with it is to empower the school staff to do what’s needed instead of unnecessarily limiting them as is so often the case.

  6. Steve says:

    There no “if’s, ands, buts or why hows” alled Rincon. It worked for me and it worked for others too.
    Standing up to bully’s is the best way to stop them.
    Your imagined scenario happened to my brother during summer school one year.
    I went and stopped the two bully’s, they went and got their big brother to try and bully my, I went and got a Lacrosse player friend of mine to stop their big brother.
    To this day I call it the cold war gambit…it worked, they stopped picking on my brother and he got stronger for it.
    Coddling their intended victims only makes them weaker and the bully stronger.

  7. Rincon says:

    Do you really think every target of a bully has a brother and a lacrosse player to back him up? Standing up to the bully is good, but when a fight breaks out, the bully needs to be charged with assault and battery and served with a stiff penalty. Bullys need to learn too.

  8. Steve says:

    Sure…send them to criminal college….good idea.


    The experiences I describe trump all the unfounded theories being pushed off in today’s “coddle everyone/award everyone for showing up world” we find ourselves no living in.

    Here’s the silver star for playing!

  9. Rincon says:

    Who said anything about criminal; college?

    Your experiences encompass a whole two bullies. That and $4.00 will buy you a fancy cup of coffee.

  10. Steve says:

    You did.

    In many jurisdictions, assaults and batteries can carry enhanced penalties for certain classes of victims. For example, many states create a more serious offense or increase the punishment for an assault or battery that is committed on a police officer or other type of public servant such as a paramedic, firefighter, teacher, etc.

    Another “unintended consequence” of making it mandatory to force teachers into this fully false theory.

    Make that 4. Mine, and the 3 my brother had. You must be using that “new math” they decided to teach in place of simple arithmetic!

    It happens to kids everywhere and it is simply a natural event in the process of growing up. It is sad we want no one to learn the lessons of winning and losing and what it really takes to grow up.
    Permanent kids, that is what we are creating.

  11. Rincon says:

    Are you familiar with the penalties for a juvenile? A stiff penalty does not have to mean jail. And why would you not classify a bully physically attacking his victim as an assault? Or should the law not apply to children? Kids that solve their problems with violence often turn into adults that do the same. Maybe we should teach them that the laws apply to everyone.

  12. Steve says:

    Teachers are public servants…..involving them in these things will have “unintended” consequences leading to “enhanced” penalties.

    Oh…I see. You are calling me “violent” now.

  13. Rincon says:

    You seem to favor coddling the bullies.

    There is another way now that I think about it, but only if it occurs in school. Especially in lower income areas, schools often contain some children that completely disrupt the learning process for the others – and more often than not, they are the bullies. Instead of suspending little malcontents, which they enjoy, the extreme problem kids should be temporarily sent to regional schools with enhanced security – sort of like boot camp. The threat of being sent off should be a fine motivator. It’s either that or bring back corporal punishment. Somehow, the teachers need to be able to keep order. That by itself would cut the bullying way back.

  14. Rincon says:

    Sorry Steve. You and I were posting at the same time.

    You often accuse others of putting words into your mouth. Turnabout is fair play. Concluding that I am calling you violent implicitly assumes that I said EVERY child that’s violent becomes a violent adult. Read again. I said OFTEN. Hopefully, you would agree that most violent adults showed a predisposition to violence before they turned 18.

  15. Steve says:

    Actually just about every violent person shows indications well before any act takes place.
    THAT is the spirit of this law but it requires teachers and administrators become psychologists.
    That hasn’t worked very well in the current law enforcement and judicial world identifying potential violent people who come before a judge…the system is simple incapable of performing these functions. It cannot get large enough to do so.
    Adding even more of this stuff into the mix will fail horribly. But it is now Nevada law so we will all get see the results of this social experiment on kids, I hope it turns out well, but I don’t hold much hope.

    Those boot camps exist today. Most limit themselves to males…females are just as likely to bully as males.

  16. Rincon says:

    You put it well. I agree that the law is not a good idea, but doing nothing is also unacceptable.

    The camp in Clark County is OK, but it sounds like way too much fun to me. I would want the “graduates” to be very motivated not to come back. I also would like to see large numbers of students sent to some sort of in between facility BEFORE they are convicted of some crime. Rowdy, out of control kids need to be separated from the ones that are actually trying to make something of themselves.

  17. […] The board did so despite the fact the state Legislative this past spring passed Senate Bill 504, an anti-bullying law which prohibits “blocking access” to “any property or facility of a school” on the basis of sex, gender identity or expression or any other distinguishing characteristic. I warned at the time the law would have unintended consequences. […]

  18. […] warned in this column at the time the law was bound to create problems and […]

  19. […] lawmakers later passed Senate Bill 504 under the guise of it being an anti-bullying law. This law prohibits “blocking access” to “any property or facility of a school” on the basis of sex, gender […]

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