Expert Commentary

Overview of state anti-bullying legislation and other related laws

2012 report from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society on current laws as well as definitions of bullying, prevention strategies, and educational, social and legal responses.


While youth bullying is as old as humankind, digital media have introduced new bullying practices and amplified the impacts. In response, schools and lawmakers have enacted a variety of preventative measures and punishments for offenders.

A 2012 working paper from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “An Overview of State Anti-Bullying Legislation and Other Related Laws,” examines current laws as well as definitions of bullying, prevention strategies, and educational, social and legal responses in 48 states. The paper is part of the Center’s larger research effort around these issues, the Kinder & Braver World Project, done in partnership with the Born This Way Foundation.

Key findings include:

  • Definitions of bullying vary widely from state to state. A December 2011 Department of Education study referenced in the report notes that “some state laws focus on specific actions (e.g., physical, verbal or written), some focus on the intent or motivation of the aggressor, others focus on the degree and nature of harms that are inflicted on the victim, and many address multiple factors…. Minor language, omitted or inserted into laws, can significantly alter the way in which the behavior and circumstances are legally defined.”
  • Of the 38 states that have laws encompassing electronic or “cyberbullying” activity, 32 put such offenses under the broader category of bullying and six states define this type of offense separately.
  • Sixteen states acknowledge that bullies often target their victims based on “creed or religion, disability, gender or sex, nationality or national origin, race, and sexual orientation.” Each of the 16 employs a wide array of additional parameters, ranging from age and weight to socioeconomic status and “unfavorable discharge from military service.”
  • “Though historically, authority over youth bullying has fallen almost exclusively under the purview of school systems, legislation governing the consequences for bullying behavior reflects a recent trend toward treating the most serious forms of bullying as criminal conduct that should be handled through the criminal justice system.”
  • Laws in 40 of 48 states require some form of bullying education or prevention programs for students; laws in 8 states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri and Wisconsin) do not require such programs.
  • Federal and state laws governing hate crimes may also be applicable to certain bullying behaviors such as “stalking, cyberstalking, obscene electronic communications, harassment, assault, battery, preventing or interfering with school attendance, criminal trespass [or] conversion of property.”
  • As of January 2012, South Dakota and Montana did not have any anti-bullying laws.

The researchers note that “legal responses and mandates can at their best only facilitate the harder non-legal work that schools must undertake to create a kinder, braver world.”

Tags: children, crime, inequality, bullying, youth

About The Author