After Kenneth Weishuhn told classmates at his Iowa high school last winter that he was gay, his family says anonymous voice-mail threats began popping up on his cell phone. At school, some of his fellow students yelled anti-gay slurs, and the harassment got so bad that teachers at South O’Brien High School in Paullina, Iowa, began standing guard in hallways. Friends started an online support group for Kenneth, whom they called “K.J.” Bullies spammed it, family members say.
On April 15, K.J. hanged himself in the garage of his home in Primghar. He was 14.
K.J.’s suicide generated a rare front-page editorial in the Sioux City Journal, headlined, “We must stop bullying. It starts here. And it starts now.” The editorial said bullies’ mistreatment of Weishuhn “didn’t let up until he took his own life,” adding, “We are all to blame. We have not done enough.”
Candlelight vigils and rallies for the freshman spread across Iowa, and K.J.’s image served as an onstage backdrop during Madonna’s European tour.
Nearly two months later, police are still investigating. O’Brien County Sheriff Michael Anderson said Tuesday that an announcement from the county attorney on whether criminal charges will be filed could come as early as this week.
Tragic suicides such as K.J.’s have galvanized educators into a zero-tolerance stance on bullying, and a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Education shows that state lawmakers nationwide are increasingly willing to criminalize bullying behavior, even as experts wonder whether doing so will have the intended effect: to curb the behavior and improve the learning atmosphere.
As millions of students head off to their summer breaks, they might leave behind the face-to-face bullying that includes everything from simple taunts to brutal beatings, but too often they can’t escape the digital world that gives the predators access to their prey day and night and well beyond the schoolyard gates.
Though bullying is as old as classrooms, only in the past decade or so have states moved to address, legislatively, what once was simply the domain of schools. In 1999, only Georgia had an anti-bullying law. Now every state but Montana does. In the past 13 years, states have enacted nearly 130 anti-bullying measures, half of which came since 2008.
Spurred partly by the Columbine shootings in 1999, in which media accounts suggested the perpetrators had been bullied, states began “rapidly” addressing bullying, a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report found. Eighteen states have laws that allow victims to seek legal remedies for bullying, either from schools that don’t act or from the bullies themselves. Among other recent trends:
• 32 states require that schools have procedures for investigating bullying incidents.
• 17 states require that school staff report bullying to a supervisor, much as they report suspected abuse and neglect.
• Nine states require administrators to report bullying to police.
• 11 states require that schools allow anonymous reporting of bullying by students.