War on bullying, part 2

War on bullying, part 2

Two weeks ago, we published an editorial calling for a war on bullying in the Jewish community. We wrote that opinion in response to a program on bullying put on by the Agency for Jewish Learning.

We said bullying in our day schools and religious schools can have a chilling effect on the children who are its victims. After all, it’s hard enough to keep Jewish kids connected to organized religion these days without having them fear coming to their day schools and synagogues.

Since then, U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. has co-sponsored a bill that would bring federal pressure to bear on schools to check their bullying problems.

Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, are co-sponsoring what they call “The Safe Schools Improvement Act.” The bill would require school districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.

It would also require states to collect information reported by school districts on incidents of bullying and harassment and report this information to the Department of Education.  This data would be made available to the public so that parents and the community at large “may know what is happening in their schools,” according to a statement from Casey’s office.

It’s a good step, and we encourage its passage (we also applaud its bipartisan support). However, the bill is drafted with the public schools in mind; it would do little to stop bullying in the Jewish community — or any faith-based community — where day schools and Hebrew schools get little, if any, federal support.

Even at the state level there appears to be little, if any, compulsion for religious institutions — from all faiths — to clamp down on bullying within their schools.

“At the state level, we are working on legislation focusing on public school as a mandate and optional for private schools including religious [schools],” wrote Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, in response to an inquiry from the Chronicle. “We would like to have for everyone, but the concept of a mandate for all schools will force the bill to not be considered by members of the General Assembly — the opposition on ‘the mandate concept’ would significantly hinder the bill.”

Clearly, to stop bullying in our community, we don’t need a political solution; we need a grassroots solution, something the whole community buys into. Yes, schools and congregations have the right to set their own rules and regulations, but we believe such a patchwork approach is counterproductive. When it comes to violent assaults — physically and emotionally — such as bullying, the community should speak with one voice. It won’t be easy; the victims of bullies are often reluctant to come forward to seek help or protection. But it’s a problem we must overcome — for our kids’ sake.

We applaud Sens. Casey and Kirk for their measure. It’s now time for us to move the ball further down field.