Severe bullying can drive children to commit suicide. It also can make them so desperate to escape that they drop out of school. Even when they remain in class, victims of bullying often don't do well academically.
Bullying may well be the single type of behavior most disruptive of the education process. The courts have held teachers and school officials are well within their rights to crack down on anyone involved in disruptive behavior - meaning that bullies are fair game for discipline-minded educators.
So why do we hear of so few cases in which students who make life miserable for others get what they deserve - harsh punishment? There are a variety of reasons for that, some acceptable and some not.
Last week the West Virginia Board of Education began planning to implement a new law enacted this spring. The statute's intent is to curb bullying by training teachers and other school employees to recognize victims and attempt to help them, perhaps through counseling.
That may help - but it is only half the equation. Teaching a student to cope with bullying may well mean his tormenters go looking for other victims. Seeking out and punishing perpetrators of severe bullying is the only way to put a real dent in the problem.
State law allows schools to suspend students who are bullies for as much as 10 days. Some of those closed discipline hearings you read about at board of education meetings may involve bullies, though privacy rules make it nearly impossible for the public to know.
Bullying puts educators in a difficult position. Are they to come down hard because a student complains someone said something politically incorrect to him? At what point does the kind of taunting many children engage in cross the line between objectionable behavior and dangerous bullying?
Most teachers probably have enough common sense to know the difference - but existing laws make it difficult for them to do anything unless blatant, public physical assault is witnessed.
The new training and counseling rules will help some young victims of bullying. Clearly, however, educators and legislators need to develop better methods of cracking down on the perpetrators.