Blame Columbine for this mess. Although violence in our nation's schools over the past several years has been a low, flat statistical line, the political trend since April 20, 1999 has been an upward march toward criminalizing mean-spirited playground behavior. Why? Because while encouraging statistics aren't newsworthy, the images of gun-wielding nerds from Columbine (and now, unfortunately, Santee, California) are perfect fodder for parental fears, irrational rhetoric, and, ultimately, questionable legislation.

Governor Gary Locke is the latest victim of the knee-jerk Columbine response. Unmindful of optimistic U.S. Department of Justice figures (e.g., between 1995 and 1999, the rate of students identifying themselves as victims of crime at school fell from 10 percent to eight percent), Locke has vowed to protect our state's children from themselves. He created a task force through the state attorney general's office several months ago to investigate intimidation and harassment in our schools. Late last month, that task force came back with an "anti-bullying" bill, which, if passed, would mandate that every school in Washington create its own policy that responds to instances of bullying and intimidation on school property. Two weeks ago, the bill passed out of the state senate's education committee, and seems to be barreling its way toward acceptance. A similar bill is currently under review in a committee in the state house of representatives.

At a state senate committee public hearing on January 29, some of Locke's task force members--Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a county sheriff, a couple of teachers, and some bullied schoolchildren--repeated the factually distorted credo of the post-Columbine world: The hair-tugging kind of school bullying of the past is not the gun-threatening bullying we know today. Gregoire said as much, adding, "Bullying can not only be wrong--it can be a life and death situation." Only through swift action, Gregoire asserted, can "we prevent a Columbine from happening in Washington state."

In all, Locke's bill seems harmless, possibly even beneficial. Undeniably, every school in the state has its share of mean-spirited, brutal kids who make hapless victims out of their peers. Rep. Ed Murray (D-43) has been trying for years to pass anti-harassment legislation (a rarity: Murray's concerns pre-date Columbine), because, when he got to office in 1995, he immediately began receiving calls about students being harassed and beaten without reprise, primarily because of their sexual orientation or developmental disability. "We need to do something," Murray says. "We need to set standards at the state level. The rules, as they are, are not working."

And there's nothing wrong with the adult desire to protect children from being hurt by vicious, mean-spirited peer abuse--safe environments are more conducive to better learning. Locke's bill is sensible in that it gives individual schools a lot of control over their own problems, a fair-minded approach that legislators like Murray are seeking.

But local control isn't always the best solution. With this bill, Olympia is asking individual schools to police behavior in a way the state has never done before, and that creates more problems than solutions. One critic of the bill is Gigi Talcott, a Republican state representative from Olympia and a first-grade teacher on leave. Talcott thinks Locke's efforts are a good example of over-legislation. "There are already clear laws on assault and on protecting students from malicious harassment," Talcott says. In other words, ruthlessly beating up the 80-pound weakling at the bus stop is already illegal. But when it comes to fairly implementing the definition of bullying, teachers will have a very difficult time, because not all bullying is the blatant toilet swirly that jocks give geeks. "We [teachers] only see the reaction [to harassment]," Talcott says. "It's very difficult for someone to come in and take one side or the other when you're dealing with kids."

And who are the kids who are getting singled out? Disproportionately, some critics say, it's minority students who are punished when schools toughen their disciplinary policies . "A teacher will look at a fight that's between a student who's black and a student who's white," says Joan First, head of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students, "but that teacher then writes up the white kid for [the minor charge of] scuffling and the black kid for [the serious charge of] fighting."

Furthermore, Locke and the legislature set the wrong tone for how a specific policy should be created. In this instance, Gregoire and others who back the plan freely acknowledge that the state's schools need an anti-harassment policy simply to avoid costly lawsuits. Any bill that is motivated by a fear of punitive damages may not have the best interests of the bullied schoolchild at heart. Such bills usually have more to do with covering the state's ass than promoting positive social change.

The bill also raises an important First Amendment issue. The senate version of Locke's bill gives schools a base line definition of "harassment, intimidation, or bullying," as "any intentional gesture, written, verbal, or physical act" that will "have the effect of harming a student." One court has already taken a dim view of that. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled just two weeks ago in favor of two students in Pennsylvania's State College Area School District. The students sued because they were worried about being restricted from expressing their belief that homosexuality is a sin. The court declared it unconstitutional to forbid words simply because they injure someone's feelings.

What is the best way to prevent bullying? Last year, Harvard University's Civil Rights Project studied schools that had achieved a record of low disciplinary problems. The organization published a comprehensive report listing the most successful practices of those schools. Instead of outright bans and penalties against intimidation and harassment, the group found that schools were more successful at promoting safer environments when they implemented such programs as peer courts, conflict resolution and mediation, mentoring, and character-building programs. These programs focus on nurturing learning and respect rather than codifying a new disciplinary rule.

Locke's anti-bullying plan does set aside $500,000 for teacher training, but the content of that training has yet to be specified; moreover, the punitive tone behind much of the bill doesn't bode well for how the state will structure the training. For the most part, the rhetoric has focused almost entirely on stopping intimidation through tough disciplinary actions. "The surest way to change behavior is swift consequences," said John Didion, the Pacific County sheriff and task force member who was given a prominent place to talk at the senate committee hearing. "This bill would correct [a bully's] behavior."

But it's almost irrelevant whether or not Locke signs his proposed bill into law. Since Columbine, our behavior toward America's youth seems motivated more by fear than by reason, and few people seem to be questioning it or trying to stop it. "You can't legislate a culture of safety. It's a quick fix that doesn't work," says Pennsylvania State University Professor Henry Giroux, a rare dissident. "We seem to be more concerned about containing children than raising them."