This study is the first to comprehensively examine the effect of state anti-bullying laws (ABLs) on school safety and youth violence. Using existing data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys and the Uniform Crime Reports, and newly-collected data on school shootings, we find little evidence that the typical state ABL is effective in improving school safety and student well-being. However, this null finding masks substantial policy heterogeneity. State mandates that require school districts to implement strong, comprehensive anti-bullying policies are associated with a 7 to 13 % reduction in school violence and an 8 to 12 % reduction in bullying. In addition, our results show that strong anti-bullying policy mandates are associated with a reduction in minor teen school shooting deaths and violent crime arrests, suggesting potentially important spillover effects.
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To take one example, thousands of school employees in the state of New Jersey attended training sessions on the state’s new anti-bullying law (Hu 2011); over 200 districts purchased anti-bullying policy manuals, DVD materials, and held staff training sessions. To take another example, schools in Broward County, Florida require the school principal (or appropriate administrator) to provide information on the process for reporting incidents at the beginning of each school year. In addition, principals provide information on the investigatory and appellate processes via the Student Code of Conduct, Employee Handbooks, assembly meetings, and the school website (Broward County Public Schools. Anti-Bullying Policy 5.9 & Procedural 2010). Finally, in several districts in Washington state, school staff receive annual training on anti-bullying policies and procedures, including staff roles and responsibilities; anti-bullying strategies and expectations are incorporated into the counseling and guidance curriculum (Washington Clover Park School District 2016).
To take another example, Bully Police USA, a high-profile private watchdog group, advocates for the adoption of strict state and local anti-bullying legislation.
To take three examples from Klein (2012), (1) on February 12, 2007 in E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard California, Brandon McInerney (age 14) shot and killed classmate Larry King because King was gay and McInerney was “disgusted” by King’s “flamboyant behavior”; (2) on March 21, 2005, Jeff Weise (age 16) shot five students and one adult staff member, and committed suicide, in part, “because he was teased because he was heavy and wore ‘Goth’ clothing”; and (3) on February 2, 1996, Barry Loukatis (age 14) shot and killed two students (including the student who reportedly bullied him) because he was a repeated victim of sexual orientation–based taunting and teasing.
Due et al. (2005) conduct cross-national comparisons of anti-bullying laws.
Estimates from the state YRBS are designed to be representative at the state level, but recent research with these data has utilized Census population estimates to introduce weights that will make these data representative at the national level as well (Anderson and Elsea 2015; Sabia and Anderson 2016; Sabia et al. 2016).
The questionnaire item in the YRBS about total physical fights was, “During the past 12 months, how many times were you in a physical fight?”
The NSSC report can be found at http://www.schoolsafety.us/media-resources/school-associated-violent-deaths
Information on effective dates from these 32 states were collected from summaries provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (U.S. Department of Education 2011, Exhibit 11) and our own investigation of each state’s anti-bullying statute.
Specifically, the DOE examined the extent to which each state legislation addressed four specific areas: (1) Definitions of Terms, (2) District Policy Development and Review, (3) School District Policy Components (Written Records and Anonymous Student Reporting Policies, Bullying Definitions, Investigation Policies, Consequences/Sanctions Policies, and Post-Bullying Mental Health Services), and (4) Additional District Policy Components (Parental Communications/Staff Training/Transparency, and Legal Remedies).
According to the DOE:
Expansiveness was interpreted differently across components; however, components in law that were rated as more expansive are generally: a) more inclusive (e.g., defined prohibited behavior broadly without any limiting conditions, or extended school jurisdiction to cover off-campus conduct); b) are more prescriptive (e.g., used concrete directives to convey policy expectations); c) use less discretionary language (e.g., used the term “shall” instead of “may”); or d) establish stronger measures of accountability.” (DOE 2011)
For example, among eight states with high intensity Written Records & Reporting mandates, half have ABLs with three additional high intensity district policy mandates, three states have two additional high intensity components, and only one has no other high intensity component. We find that approximately half of the identifying variation available in each high intensity component is eliminated by the inclusion of controls for the others.
The lower bound of the 95 % confidence interval is calculated as the ratio of the point estimates subtracting the product of 1.96 and the standard error to the mean of the relevant dependent variable.
Using a 1-year lag of ABLs produces a similar pattern of results, available upon request
To get a sense of the magnitudes of our estimated ABL effects, we compare them to the estimated effects of other policies that have been found to improve school safety. Anderson and Sabia (2016) find that state child access prevention gun control laws, which impose criminal liability on adult gun owners who allow minors unsupervised access to firearms, are associated with a 15 to 20 % reduction in weapons-related threats, and Markowitz (2001) finds that a 1 % increase in beer taxes is associated with a 5 % reduction in physical fighting by students. Finally, the Boston Gun Project, a program designed to reduce youth violence, particularly gang violence, is associated with an approximately 50 % decline in youth gun assaults (Piehl et al. 2000).
An examination of the intensive margin of these outcomes (e.g., frequency of behaviors among those reporting them) suggests that the effects if ABLs are largely driven along the extensive margin.
We also explore whether there were heterogeneous effects of ABLs on bullying on school safety by gender, age (under 16 and over 16), and region of the country (South versus non-Southern states). The results, available upon request, show that written records and reporting components have larger effects for male students as compared to female students, but there is no gender difference across strong versus weaker ABLs. Estimated ABL effects do not differ by student age, but the impacts of ABLs also appear concentrated in non-southern states.
Given that there are only 3 years of data available for this outcome, the inclusion of state-specific time trends eliminates much of the identifying variation. An auxiliary regression of state ABLs on controls shows that the inclusion of state-specific linear time trends increases our estimate of R 2 from 80 to 94 %.
These models are estimated via linear probability model. Estimates using Poisson models that capture the count of school shooting fatality events generate a qualitatively similar pattern of results.
The results for crime and safety persist when we expand the age group examined for the falsification tests to those ages 19–29, matching the school shooting age group.
In unreported falsification tests, we draw data from the General Social Survey from 1993 to 2010 to examine the effect of ABLs on (1) fear of walking around in one’s neighborhood and (2) presence of shotguns in one’s home or garage, for 20–24-year-olds. Our findings suggest little evidence that strong school district policies or multiple strong district policy components are associated with changes in young adult neighborhood safety or shotgun ownership. In addition, we also experiment with an additional falsification test on minor high school students’ helmet use and find no evidence that state ABLs are associated with this outcome.
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The authors thank Sara Markowitz, Mark Duggan, and Rosa Minhyo Cho for useful comments and suggestions on this paper. We thank Thanh Tam Nguyen for excellent research assistance. Special thanks are owed to D. Mark Anderson, who graciously made school shooting data available to these authors. We also thank conference participants at the Southern Economic Association (SEA) and the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) as well as seminar participants at San Diego State University for useful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper. The authors declare that we have no relevant or material financial interests that relate to the research described in this paper.
Conflict of interest
During the three years prior to the acceptance of this article, Dr. Sabia has been awarded grants from the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) totaling over $10,000. Travel support has also been received from EPI to participate in a minimum wage panel in Washington, DC. Dr. Sabia’s research effort on the current project was not funded by these foundations.
This study did not receive grant funding.
Responsible editor: Erdal Tekin
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Sabia, J.J., Bass, B. Do anti-bullying laws work? New evidence on school safety and youth violence. J Popul Econ 30, 473–502 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-016-0622-z
- Youth violence
- Anti-bullying laws
- School shootings