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Stand up to the biggest bully in the room: mental illness

Teen suicide and school shootings are blamed on bullying. Mental illness is the far more likely culprit. We need to expand mental-health services in schools and in society, not hamstring our educators with complicated and draconian 'bullying' laws.

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Pallbearers carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick in Bartow, Fla,. Sept. 16. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: Anyone who bullied Sedwick 'should be disciplined severely.' But this does not 'mean we should address this problem with anti-bullying laws, which might cause more harm than they alleviate.'

Brian Blanco/AP

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Here’s a true story, courtesy of an old friend. Last year, a teacher overheard my friend’s son saying that a girl had called him “gay.” The teacher talked to the boy, who told her that he wasn’t upset by the comment. Under a new state anti-bullying law, however, the teacher felt compelled to report the incident.

The next day, the school principal called my friend to announce that he had commenced an “investigation.” Several students were interviewed, triggering a new buzz in the school. Kids divided into “teams,” according to whom they supported – the girl or boy. In the end, the girl was found “guilty” and received some kind of sanction, although my friend’s son never heard what it was. And that’s the kind of story you rarely hear about bullying in American schools.

We usually hear about bullying only when there’s a terrible tragedy like the death of Rebecca Sedwick, the 12-year-old Florida girl who committed suicide last month after being bullied online.

The kids’ reported taunts – including “Can u die please?” – are abhorrent, and anyone who sent such a message should be disciplined severely. But that does not necessarily mean that online bullying caused Sedwick’s death. Nor does it mean we should address this problem with anti-bullying laws, which might cause more harm than they alleviate.

Every state except Montana has passed an anti-bullying measure since 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed a dozen students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. News reports said that the boys were trying to exact revenge from “jocks” who had bullied them.

But that explanation wasn’t true. Klebold and Harris were “popular kids,” not alienated loners. Nor is there any evidence that the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was a victim of bullying, as was also reported at the time.

So why do we seize upon the bullying narrative? I think it’s because we’re scared, and we want an answer. And we also are reluctant to address the main root of these tragedies: mental illness.

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