Bullying the Bullies: Is Criminal Law the Appropriate Response to Bullies?

It has been just over a week since Amanda Todd’s tragic and heart-breaking suicide, which she committed to end the pain from the endless torment of the bullies in her life.  A week filled with the public’s sadness, questions, and soul-searching.  A week of outcries:  “How did we stand by and let this happen?”  “What can we do to prevent another Amanda Todd tragedy?”  “Bullies should be punished immediately and harshly!”

And at the end of that week, suddenly and predictably, eight girls in London, Ontario, have been arrested for bullying another, and have been charged with criminal harassment. 

We deservedly feel guilt and shame over Amanda’s fate and our inaction as bystanders to other cases of bullying.  But the desire to do something, and perhaps to relieve our sense of guilt, should not lead us to precipitously arrest every bully, without first exploring other avenues for resolving these conflicts.  

Of the many options available to deal with bullying and bullies, the criminal law is the harshest, most punitive response we can use against anyone, particularly young people, who are still developing and often fighting their own emotional battles. 

In our efforts to prevent another Amanda Todd tragedy, we must take care not to be too hasty in the use of our bluntest and most retaliatory weapon, the criminal law.  

Our zeal must not render us bullies, as well.

Currently, we know very little about the London events that have led to the charges against the young women, or the emotional torment of their victim.  Reports indicate that a female student was the victim of emotional, physical, and cyber-bullying—all pointing toward another possibly tormented young life. 

It may well be that the arrest and criminal charges against those eight girls in London is justified. 

It may well be that all other options for dealing with this problem had been explored and tried, to no avail. 

But it is equally likely that under pressure to respond forcefully to bullying, the police cast the net too wide and arrested too many people. 

Did educators and parents try other, more effective, more empowering means of resolving the problem?

In general, the heavy hand of criminal law is a poor deterrent to most crimes.  Its impact can be devastating to the accused and unhelpful to the victim.  Worse still, criminally charging the perpetrators may end neither the bullying nor the suffering of the victim.  Indeed, the teasing, the emotional harm, the disenfranchisement and the dislike of the victim may increase, especially if the kids arrested are popular, or if their friends and other community members believe that the accusations or arrests were unjustified or a disproportionate response. 

There are alternative, more effective means of preventing and dealing with bullying.  These means require the collaboration and involvement of parents, teachers, counselors and community members.  They require changes in our habits and an examination of how we, as adults, speak about colleagues and peers.  They require changes in our parenting styles:  What shows we permit our children to watch; whether we talk to them about integrity and courage; whether we emphasize “coolness” over kindness. 

Do we, as a community, use supportive processes that encourage accountability by those who have inflicted the hurt?  Do we implement and use processes that facilitate communication by the victim, who may feel empowered by the chance to confront her tormentors?  Do we search for the possible, underlying problems in the life of the bully that have led him or her to act meanly? Do we look for solutions that can help both the victims and the bullies and will be transformative for everyone?

These measures may appear more time-consuming, but in the end, they are likely to be far more effective than the threat and the risks of criminal charges.

Skip these efforts and immediately charge, criminalize and potentially imprison kids who have engaged in bullying, and we send our children the wrong message:  “Your harsh and unforgiving behaviour will be met with even harsher and sometimes more draconian consequences.” 

It’s like reacting to a 4-year-old’s hitting of a friend by spanking the 4-year-old.   “You are going to hurt someone else?  Well, we are going to hurt you even more,” we threaten.

Skip the other efforts and we are abdicating our responsibility as parents and as a community, and leaving everything to the heavy hand of the criminal law, which should only and always be used as a last resort.

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