There’s no federal law against bullying, but most states and school districts have policies against aggressive behavior. Should we be doing more to combat bullying in schools?

Bullying in Elementary Schoolyard
Credit: Lopolo/Shutterstock

About 20% of students—or one in five adolescents—report being bullied in school. Bullying comes in many different forms, ranging from physical assaults to verbal threats to online name-calling. And no matter what form the bullying takes, it can leave the victim feeling threatened and unsafe. 

“What we often hear from students is that bullying hurts, whether it’s done in person or through technology, and that the end result is damaging,” says Bailey Huston, coordinator at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. In fact, bullying is associated with emotional distress, anxiety, depression, school violence, and school avoidance. It might also be a factor in someone’s decision to commit suicide. 

Bullying usually takes place on school grounds—often in the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, or bathrooms. This makes it difficult for victimized children to feel safe away from home. And while school administrators have the authority to intervene if a student feels threatened at school, aggressive behavior is often overlooked. This raises an important question: Are we doing enough to prevent bullying in schools?

Federal Bullying Laws 

There’s currently no federal law against bullying, and it’s not considered a criminal offense in most states. But bullying sometimes overlaps with discriminatory harassment, especially if it’s based on a student’s race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, or religion, according to PACER’s. Bullying also violates civil rights acts if it interferes with someone’s right to free appropriate public education (FAPE). In these cases, federal law requires publicly-funded schools to handle the situation appropriately. 

The U.S. Department of Education has responded to bullying with "Dear Colleague" letters, which advise school officials on ways to deal with the aggressive behavior. The first letter, which was sent out in 2010, discussed forms of bullying as a civil rights violation. A 2011 letter concluded that discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation were both prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Similarly, rights for students with disabilities (promised under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) were emphasized with a 2014 Dear Colleague letter. 

There’s one major problem with the federal government's handling of bullying, though. A February 2016 article from The American Psychological Association points out that people who are bullied for issues not related to race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, or religion can’t claim discriminatory harassment. Someone who is verbally teased for his weight, for instance, isn’t necessarily protected through civil rights laws. (But if he stops coming to school from this verbal bullying, it could be considered a violation of his right to free appropriate public education—and the school is obligated to step in.) 

How States Are Fighting Against Bullying

State bullying laws vary greatly, but every state requires school districts to implement policies against bullying. Here are some details, according to the The American Psychological Association:

  • In over one-third of states, school staff are required to report bullying incidents. 
  • Two-thirds of states have protocols for investigating bullying, and these protocols range from flexible to strict.
  • Disciplinary consequences for bullying show up in three-quarters of state laws. But these requirements are often broad, and there’s no nationwide consensus on proper punishment for bullying behavior.
  • In half of states, school staff must learn about bullying prevention tactics.
  • A majority of states require bullying eduction and bullying awareness programs for students.
  • Some schools must offer counseling services—both to the victim and the bully.

Visit to learn about the bullying laws in your state. 

Bullying Prevention in School Districts

Local school districts are required to implement policies against bullying. You’ll find guidelines in the school handbook or through administration. 

Cities across the country are also proposing their own regulations to combat aggressive behavior in schools. Take, for example, the Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools District in Wisconsin. It recently proposed a bill that would require parents of bullies to pay up to $313 in fines. The bill came into existence after student-written notes urging a seventh grader to kill herself were posted online, according to a New York Times article from June 2019.

Always contact your school board if you feel their policies are ineffective or insufficient.  If a school has not been responsive and you feel your child's education is being undermined bullying, file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.