For Erin Schweitzer, who lives on the Menominee Reservation 45 miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the bullying of her 11-year-old daughter started with names: "bitch," "whore," "fugly." Schweitzer told her daughter's teacher, but things got worse — the bully attacked her on the bus, slamming her head into the window. Schweitzer says the girl got a week of lunchtime detention, but soon started again, this time with cyberbullying. It wasn't until then that Schweitzer learned that Wisconsin's anti-bullying legislation doesn't apply on Menominee-owned land.
The classmate had been using a convenience store's computer to send vulgar Facebook messages to her daughter. It's not clear whether the girl had a computer at home, but given that poverty rates [.pdf] on the Menominee Reservation are exceptionally high, it's possible that she didn't. Schweitzer successfully got the store to place parental controls on its computer, but the girl came to their house, throwing rocks and shouting obscenities. "I've seen the spirit sucked out of my daughter, literally sucked right out of her," Schweitzer says.
She was able to get a restraining order against her daughter's classmate, but found she couldn't file a criminal complaint. Forty-eight states, including Wisconsin, have some sort of anti-bullying laws on the books — New Jersey's law, one of the strictest, allows kids to report bullying directly to the police, and requires that schools inform the state government about bullying incidents. But Wisconsin state law doesn't apply on the Menominee Reservation — and Schweitzer says tribal law hasn't caught up with the times; if she wants her daughter's bully punished, her only option is to file a civil suit. "I don't think it should be this hard for a parent to protect their child."
She wants the tribal government to make "the harassment laws more strict, for both adults and children." In cases of "continued harassment," she wants "an imprisonment option" (the Menominee Reservation does have its own detention facility) — though she stops short of saying that school-age children should go to jail for bullying.
Erin's concerns are gaining traction — she's been discussing her concerns with tribal legislator Gary Besaw, and will be presenting at a legislative meeting this week. From there, the Menominee tribal government — a nine-member legislature elected by tribe members — could choose to enact a law. But if the Menominee Reservation does adopt an anti-bullying law, it might be the first reservation to do so.
Joel Tannehill, who works with youth on the Yakama Reservation as the Student Assistance Coordinator for MERIT Resource Services, told me bullying was a "significant" issue there, a problem that's exacerbated by the grim living conditions on many reservations. Alcoholism, addiction, abuse, and suicide are all significant issues — 12% of deaths among American Indian and Alaskan Native populations are alcohol-related, which is over three times the national average. According to a Department of Justice report, American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the country, three and a half times the national average. A 2005 study found that American Indian/Alaskan Native kids were more likely to experience abuse and neglect that white or Hispanic children. And suicide rates on reservations are 70% higher than in the US at large.
Tannehill says these problems are the root causes of bullying, which he calls "a way for one kid to make himself feel better." Growing up with alcoholic family members himself, he says, "I would take all that anger out and take it to school and beat people up." And he believes many bullies are doing the same.
A 2011 report by the National Education Association supports Tannehill's claims. It cites bullying as a factor contributing to the suicide rate among Native American youth, which is over three times the national average. A 14-year-old Native American student from Montana told the NEA, "Let’s say all your emotions are in a glass of water. When somebody bullies you, dump out a little bit... Eventually that glass of water is going to be empty and that’s kind of like your self-esteem. You’re going to be empty, so you’re going to try to commit suicide.”
But, to Tannehill's knowledge, tribal anti-bullying laws are non-existent: "I don't know of any legal thing they've done on any reservation about the act of bullying," adding that bullying is often addressed in school, rather than through the justice system. The Menominee Tribal School does have an official anti-bullying policy, but it's not clear if they enforced it in the case of Schweitzer's daughter. School officials did not respond to my request for comment.
Not everyone agrees that anti-bullying laws are the best way to protect kids. New Jersey's law has drawn criticism from some school officials there. And some state bullying laws (Wisconsin's among them) merely mandate that schools have anti-bullying policies on the books, nothing more.
Tannehill advocates a more grassroots approach, with students talking to students. He mentioned a student-founded group on the Yakama Reservation called the Dream Makers, who talk to their peers about bullying and suicide prevention. If Tannehill's right, a program like this might have stopped Schweitzer's daughter from being bullied in the first place. He says, "We spend a lot of time as adults trying to fix kids and change kids, but we need to remember who we listened to when we were young" — other kids.