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A Positive Approach to Reduce Bullying and Harassment

According to the National Crimes Victimization Survey, close to 1.2 million U.S. secondary students reported someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more. These disturbing statistics have remained consistent since 2005.

The risks of school liability or an agency enforcement action under civil rights laws and IDEA for failing to effectively address discriminatory harassment and bullying appear to have increased in recent years.

Administrative Crackdown

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school leaders nationwide, making clear that bullying based on protected class status may constitute a violation of the civil rights laws. A 2013 letter issued by the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services elaborated on new stringent standards for schools when addressing any situation involving a student with disabilities being bullied or engaging in bullying.

The U.S. Department of Education released a new video that addresses discriminatory harassment and provides directions to parents on how to file a complaint.

At a recent school law workshop in New Jersey on Bullying, the Law and Your Clients 2014, organizers introduced the program with this statement: “The ultimate seminar on the legal and practical issues surrounding bullying returns for its fourth year with a focus on bullying-related lawsuits. New Jersey law has reached a point where these cases are increasing in frequency and success.”

In 2012, the U.S. Second Circuit Court upheld a $1 million verdict against a school district in a case of racial harassment and bullying. The school appeared to be doing everything required by most state statutes. It had a policy and reporting system, provided training for staff and responded every time the student reported being targeted. The court concluded the school ignored many signals and that more actions by the school system were necessary.

Reliance on Reporting

Schools’ efforts generally have come in response to state bullying prevention statutes, which focus on rules and advise students to report acts of bullying. Do students actually report and does this make things better? The Youth Voice Project study in 2011 asked students who were repeatedly bullied and had experienced moderate to severe levels of distress whether they reported to an adult at school and, if so, whether things got better, stayed the same or got worse. The findings at the secondary level indicated:

At middle schools, 68 percent of bullied students did not tell an adult, 12 percent reported and things got better, 8 percent reported but things stayed the same, and 12 percent reported but things grew worse.

At high schools. 76 percent of bullied students did not tell an adult about a bullying act they had seen or experienced, 7 percent told someone and things got better, 8 percent told someone and things stayed the same, and 9 percent told but things got worse.

Clearly, relying on rules, reporting and consequences is insufficient.

Schoolwide Approaches

As someone who has worked with educators on these issues for more than a decade, I would recommend these actions:

Place a high priority on addressing the issues of bullying and harassment. Dedicate staff at the district and school levels and establish broad-based committees that include staff (including school bus, nursing and athletics), students, parents and community representatives. Assess what is happening locally through surveys and student focus groups. Identify local concerns, develop an action plan and evaluate progress. Review all policies and practices, including school security, mental health plans, disciplinary policies and incident reporting and tracking. Specifically address the concerns of those students who are more typically targeted.

Focus on schoolwide positive management of student behavior. Put in place a comprehensive approach to increase students’ social, emotional and cultural competencies. Unfortunately, few bullying prevention approaches are considered evidence-based, so seek strategies that are research-grounded and engage in local evaluation of effectiveness. Avoid one-shot edutainment assemblies, which are known to be totally ineffective. Strictly avoid “bullying can cause suicide” messages, as this may lead emotionally distressed, bullied students to consider suicide an option.

Fully engage students to provide critically valuable insights. This can be accomplished through focus groups, with student representation on school and district committees and through a student leadership team that is responsible for activities to support positive school climate and personal relationships. Bullying behavior is socially motivated. It most often occurs outside of adult view and frequently goes unreported. As such, you want to teach students how to effectively intervene when they witness bullying or other hurtful behavior, stop themselves from being hurtful and make amends and effectively handle situations if someone is hurtful to them.

Shift from punitive responses to a multiple-tiered system of supports and restorative practices. Address the challenges faced by all students, including those bullied. Hold those students being hurtful accountable in a manner that remedies the harm and stops the continuation of the problem. Evaluate the effectiveness of every school intervention.

Nancy Willard is the director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in Eugene, Ore., and the author of Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere): Legal Ramifications & Positive Strategies to Address Bullying & Harassment. E-mail: nwillard@embracecivility.org. Twitter: @GoCivility 

 

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