Every day at UK gay rights charity Stonewall we hear heart-rending stories from young people who have had their school lives blighted by bullying and their education ruined. With more than a quarter of gay young people saying that they have attempted suicide and more than half having self-harmed, we're all too aware that when it comes to bullying the old myth of "sticks and stones" simply doesn't ring true.
In this context, the motivation of the UK anti-bullying charity BeatBullying and passionate campaigners Sara Payne and Shy Keenan, who are lobbying for new legislation to tackle bullying, is entirely understandable. The proposed legislation is called Ayden's Law, after Keenan's son, 14-year-old Ayden Olson, who apparently took his own life. Keenan says her son was bullied at school before he was found dead at their home in March.
The proposal would introduce a raft of measures designed to clamp down on bullying in the classroom and beyond. We share Payne and Keenan's passion for making our classrooms places where all young people can learn free from bullying, harassment and intimidation. But there's a problem - central to the plans is a proposal to make bullying between young people a criminal offence. We believe that this not only fundamentally fails to address the causes of bullying but would be actively damaging in the fight to tackle it.
The proposal is inspired by similar laws in the US. Some 18 US states now allow some form of legal redress for the victims of bullying, either against the schools directly or against the bullies themselves. Leaving aside the moral question of whether further criminalisation of young people is either right or desirable, the evidence shows that laws like this simply don't work.
A wide body of research shows that criminalisation of activities such as bullying is not a deterrent to young people, who respond more emotionally to their surroundings than adults. Instead, all that laws such as this do in practice is make it even harder for young people to engage with society by labelling them as criminals.
Even more disturbing is the fact that there is significant evidence to suggest that the types of students who fall foul of these laws are those from low-income or minority ethnic backgrounds. Of the 30,000 young people expelled from US schools with zero-tolerance policies in the 2009-10 school year, 56 per cent were black or Hispanic. In contrast, the actions of wealthier white children appear much more likely to be dismissed as "banter".
What's more, the victims of bullying don't want to see their tormentors turned into criminals. Instead, they want to see schools dealing with the issue themselves; addressing the reasons why bullying occurs and having clear sanctions in place for those who do bully, rather than erecting further barriers which can lead to these victims being even more isolated from their peers.
The government appears unwilling to adopt the proposals wholesale, but the suggested inclusion of bullying in the anti-social behaviour bill currently going through Parliament, plus an amendment to give principals the power to issue new injunctions, threatens to provide much the same outcome. Although an injunction won't give young people a criminal record, breaching one can result in three months' imprisonment. We know that currently about seven in 10 young people breach their antisocial behaviour orders and that 40 per cent of these breaches result in imprisonment. Of further concern is that between a third and two-thirds of these orders are imposed on people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. This means that the proposals not only risk criminalising scores of young people, but also some of the most vulnerable.
New legislation is not necessary to tackle bullying. A plethora of laws already exists to enable schools to do this and to help parents to hold schools to account. All schools are already required to have measures in place to tackle bullying; and more recently they had a duty placed on them to eliminate discrimination and foster good relations between groups of pupils. Inspectors also place a strong premium on schools' efforts to tackle bullying. And, in more serious cases, the police have the power to intervene: where, for instance, threats, assault or ongoing harassment are taking place.
Tackling homophobic language
The truth is, we are starting to win the battle against bullying, with surveys consistently showing overall levels on the decline. In terms of homophobic bullying, there has been a decrease of 15 per cent in the past five years alone. Our research has also shown that the single greatest barrier that teachers still face in tackling homophobic bullying is a lack of confidence. Adding a new criminal offence won't change this confidence deficit, but what will is the provision of high-quality training that gives teachers the tools they need. Which is why this year at Stonewall we will be launching a wide-ranging expansion of our teacher-training programme to help thousands more teachers tackle bullying in their classrooms.
Simple steps make a huge difference. Gay young people are, for instance, much less likely to be bullied in schools that address gay issues positively in the curriculum (76 per cent compared with 46 per cent). In schools that actively tackle homophobic language, students are more than 40 per cent less likely to have been bullied. This is where the debate around bullying should be focused: on policies, training and the curriculum. Criminalising bullying would take a sledgehammer to much of the good work that has already been done, encouraging schools to abdicate their responsibility to protect young people.
Luke Tryl is senior education officer at gay rights charity Stonewall, @LukeTryl. To find out more about Stonewall's Education for All campaign or teacher training opportunities, visit www.stonewall.org.ukteachertraining