Friday, February 10, 2006

Important and Disturbing New Article About Peer-on-Peer Bullying in Law School

Much of my research has been devoted to the problem of bullying in elementary and secondary schools, but I was completely unprepared for what I read in Darby Dickerson's recent article, "Cyberbullies on Campus," 37 U. Tol. L. Rev. 51 (2005).  I read a draft of the article last spring, and I have been eagerly awaiting its publication ever since because I think it may be one of the most important and groundbreaking articles about legal education in many years.

Darby Dickerson, who is Vice President and Dean of Stetson College of Law, discusses frankly and openly some very disturbing incidents of peer-on-peer bullying at her law school and presents empirical evidence suggesting that what she discovered there is very likely happening elsewhere across the country.  The article should be read widely in the law school community.

If you are unfamiliar with the phenomenon of bullying, you may be tempted to think it a trivial problem that students should be tough enough to endure with a little humor and a little backbone.  What you'll find in Darby's article will change your thinking. 

You'll find that bullying isn't at all what most people imagine it is.  "Bullying" is an unfortunate term because it evokes for Americans images of something childish and relatively harmless.  If the research had begun in this country instead of Europe, the phenomenon would likely have been termed something that for Americans would be more evocative of its true nature, because what researchers are talking about is not harmless teasing or even occasional mean-spiritedness.  It is an ongoing, debilitating abuse that does real damage to its victims, who are often outnumbered and usually powerless to stop it.  And it is happening in higher education; there really isn't any doubt about that anymore.

What is critical to understand about bullying is that faculties at the elementary and secondary level are nearly always oblivious to its existence, even though it has been shown to be shockingly prevalent in our lower schools.  Bullies operate underground and are exceptionally clever at hiding their actions from school officials and talking their way out of trouble.

It is therefore incumbent upon the law school community to avoid the mistake so routinely made in the lower schools.  We cannot assume that these dynamics do not exist in our schools simply because most of us are unaware of them and because we assume law students are too mature to be inflicting such cruelties on others.  If lower schools are any guide, we need to take seriously the possibility that some of our students are suffering serious and ongoing abuse by some members of their classes and we don't know about it.

Perhaps we will find that our schools are free of such problems.  But after reading Darby's article, I don't think you'll believe it is safe for us to assume that they are. (dbw)

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