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Feature                                                       Pages 26-31

 

The Political and Cultural

Complications of Bullying  

Aggressive actions against harassment may be the district’s aim, but outside forces get in the way

BY SCOTT LAFEE

Nine days into Scott Martzloff’s first year as superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District, a suburban community just outside Buffalo, N.Y., a high school freshman named Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide.

“I became superintendent in July 2011,” recalls Martzloff. “Two months later, on Sept. 18, Jamey died. I was still meeting people in the district, still shaking hands and learning names. I obviously didn’t know Jamey.”

Scott Martzloff
Scott Martzloff

But in the days and months that followed, Martzloff — and the world — would come to know at least parts of Jamey’s story well. Within 24 hours of his death, Rodemeyer’s family, friends and others were talking about his life and death in newspapers, on radio and on national TV. It was alleged the openly gay 14-year-old had been bullied and harassed by classmates for years, at school and online. Jamey had chronicled his troubles in chat rooms, tweets and YouTube videos, frequently encouraging other gay teens to fight back, especially against thoughts of suicide.

Rodemeyer’s death garnered immediate headlines, the latest example in a seeming epidemic of student suicides spawned by bullying, often connected to issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. Celebrities like Lady Gaga rallied around Jamey’s story and cause. New state legislation against bullying was proposed in his name.

Case Closed
In his western New York school district of 10,400 students, Martzloff found himself caught in a media-driven maelstrom of questions, concerns and criticism. Did bullying really drive Jamey to suicide? Could it have been prevented? What did school officials know? What did they do?

Local police investigated and uncovered at least five episodes of on-campus harassment of Rodemeyer. However, the investigators concluded that school officials were not aware of the specific incidents until after his death. Authorities ultimately closed the case without filing any criminal charges. Jamey’s suicide, they said, appeared to be the consequence of multiple factors, not just bullying.

Still, based on information provided by the police, Martzloff suspended several students for bullying or harassing Rodemeyer. Their identities and the terms of their suspensions were not announced.

“Whether a student is gay or not, no one deserves to be harassed. Not for any reason,” Martzloff says. “Everybody has a right to come to school and be accepted for who they are. After Jamey’s death, I held parent forums at all 13 schools in the district. One of the things I asked people was how many of them had ever been bullied. Generally, about half would raise their hands. Bullying is not a contemporary problem. It has always been there.”

A Controversial Bill
Student bullying is one of the most frequently reported discipline issues in schools. According to the 2010 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, produced by the federal departments of education and justice, 21 percent of elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools and 22 percent of high schools report significant problems with bullying.

Members of minority groups are the typical targets. These days, that most often means students whose sexual orientation or gender identity attracts the ire of others. In a school climate survey of 7,261 middle and high school students conducted by the advocacy group Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, almost all lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender students reported having been harassed in school. Two-thirds said they felt unsafe on campus because of their sexual orientation.

At last count, 48 states have anti-bullying laws on their books, most mandating some kind of response or action from school districts. The two exceptions are Montana and South Dakota. But clarity and direction from state legislators is hardly a given. The subject of bullying is fraught with political, social and cultural complications, and school districts often must find their own way through the inevitable, fractious controversies.

Consider the case of Michigan. Last November, the state senate passed a controversial bill requiring school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. However, the bill was excoriated by critics who cited its exemptions for offensive statements or acts based on a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”

A leading critic of the legislative bill was Michael Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, who said: “I cannot imagine any real moral conviction or religious teaching that says it is acceptable to inflict pain, humiliation and suffering on another person, especially a child.”

Lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives eventually removed the controversial exemptions, and a final bill was signed into law in December by Gov. Rick Snyder, who acknowledged he had been bullied throughout his school years.

The new Michigan law requires every school district to enact an anti-bullying policy, but it does not proscribe specific behaviors, much to the consternation of groups like GLSEN, who say it’s essential that the specific bases of harassment be defined and prohibited.

Federal Clarification
New Jersey may have the toughest anti-bullying policy in the nation. The state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which passed last year, was prompted by the 2010 death of an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after a roommate posted a secretly filmed sexual encounter of him on the Internet. The law contains 18 pages of required components that every school district must follow. Among them:

  • Increased staff training and tight deadlines (a one-day turnaround) for investigating alleged incidents, on campus or off;
  • Designated anti-bullying specialists on each campus and a districtwide coordinator;
  • Twice-a-year reports to the state department of education, which will post compliance scores;
  • A penalty of lost professional licenses for failure to comply.

The federal government also has stepped up its interest. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights mailed a “Dear Colleague Letter” to districts nationwide. The letter’s intent, OCR officials said at the time, was to clarify the relationship between bullying and discriminatory harassment under civil rights law. More specifically, it was meant to underscore the federal government’s position that unmitigated bullying may be a violation of students’ civil rights and that schools were legally obliged to both stop it and prevent it.

“Once a school knows or reasonably should know of possible student-on-student harassment,” the OCR stated, “it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.”

If harassment has occurred, the OCR said school officials must take “prompt and effective steps” to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and prevent its recurrence. These steps must be taken regardless of whether a student complains of harassment or asks for official action.

The letter has prompted concerns about overreach, unintended consequences and the ability of schools to adequately implement and sustain required programs. “Our fear is that, absent clarification, the department’s expansive reading of the law will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial school climates that distract schools from their educational missions,” wrote General Counsel Francisco M. Negron Jr. of the National School Boards Association in a letter to the Department of Education.

But education officials dismiss those concerns, noting that the Dear Colleague Letter simply reiterates existing laws and policies and provides new examples of how to combat bullying. And the OCR has followed up its words with actions.

District Responses
Seth Walsh was a 13-year-old middle school student in the Tehachapi Unified School District, a sprawling, 4,900-student rural district southeast of Bakersfield, Calif., who committed suicide just one month before the OCR letter was sent.

Walsh, who was gay, had long complained of frequent bullying by classmates, who mocked his appearance and mannerisms. On Sept. 19, 2010, he attempted to hang himself from a backyard tree. He died from associated injuries nine days later. A suicide note to his family read, in part: “Please put my body in burial and visit my used body. And make sure to make the school feel like **** for bringing you this sorrow.”

After investigating, the OCR concluded that district staff failed to stop or prevent harassment of Walsh for more than two years. District officials initially denied knowledge of Walsh’s harassment, but later agreed to revise their policies and regulations regarding sexual and gender-based harassment, to hire a consultant to conduct mandatory training sessions for all students, teachers and staff, and to conduct regular climate surveys.

A similar story is still playing out in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, northwest of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The 40,000-student district is the largest in Minnesota and, for the last year at least, one of the bigger players in the bullying debate.

Two years ago, Anoka-Hennepin board of education members passed a controversial policy that said if the subject of sexual orientation came up in class, teachers were obliged to take a neutral stance. A parent sued the school district alleging two teachers had harassed her son because they thought he was gay. The district eventually settled the lawsuit for $25,000. Between 2009 and 2010, Minnesota Public Radio reported that seven students in the district committed suicide, some of whom were gay and alleged victims of bullying.

School officials deny the connection between harassment and the suicides, but the federal departments of education and justice are investigating. Dennis Carlson, the Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, declined to talk about the situation, citing ongoing federal mediation.

Local Autonomy
Often missing in the anti-bullying directives from state and federal entities is how exactly school districts are supposed to implement them, particularly if the mandates are unfunded — as they often are.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, supports the intent of his state’s tough anti-bullying law. “School leaders cannot and should not avoid the issue,” he says.

Richard Bozza
Richard Bozza

On the other hand, he adds, “The law takes away the autonomy of school personnel to deal most effectively with very minor issues since an investigation and formal reporting are required. The law places the burden of addressing bullying solely on the school system. This is an issue which requires the support of parents, civic and community leaders and clergy to adequately address the larger society issue.”

Nonetheless, school districts across the country are taking action. The Fort Worth Independent School District has expanded its anti-bullying policy to protect nontraditional “gender identity and expression” among students. It’s reportedly the first district in Texas to do so. Broward County Public Schools in Florida has done the same.

The process isn’t necessarily easy. For example, Montana does not have a statewide anti-bullying policy, but in the summer of 2010, Helena Public Schools officials, led by veteran superintendent Bruce K. Messinger, unveiled new, frank guidelines for teaching about sexuality and tolerance, part of a broader effort to address the issues of bullying and harassment.

The guidelines covered all age groups, progressing from 1st graders learning that “human beings can love people of the same gender” to 5th graders being taught that sexual intercourse takes multiple forms.

Community response was seriously divided, and particularly sharp among local conservative and religious groups, which complained the proposed materials were too explicit and promoted official acceptance of homosexuality.

After several months of roiling debate, a divided Helena school board adopted a revised plan that excised most of the original language for more vague descriptions. Parents also were granted the option of removing their children from lessons they found objectionable.

Messinger left the district a year later to take the superintendent’s job in Boulder, Colo. He was replaced by Keith Meyer, an assistant superintendent for 14 years and a 30-year district employee. Meyer had been preparing to retire, but agreed to be interim superintendent for at least a year.

Forceful Dealings
When asked about the issue of bullying in Helena, Meyer is circumspect. He says the controversy was fueled more by poor communications and a flawed process than by the actual content of the guidelines.

“Communication had broken down between the school board, the superintendent and the community on this topic,” Meyer says. “We discovered you cannot simply tell people what they should know and believe. You have to listen to what they’re saying as well. We’re trying to rebuild that trust and I feel good about it.”

Meyer says the district’s current anti-bullying policy, recommended by the Montana School Boards Association, is “aggressive” but could be improved. (A district survey found half of the students between the ages of 12 and 14 said they had been bullied.) The district has hired a consultant and devoted additional staff development days to the topic.

Keith Meyer
Keith Meyer

“‘Expect respect’ is our mantra this year,” Meyer says. “We want to improve relations between all people — students, staff, kids, adults. I’ve been doing a lot of listening and what I hear is that people really want to help, if you ask them to help. We’re doing that.”

Other districts have grappled more forcefully with the issue of bullying. The Alameda Unified School District in northern California introduced new tolerance lessons in 2009 after teachers observed elementary-age students using gay slurs and teasing children with gay or lesbian parents. One new lesson included using a children’s book about two male penguins bonding and raising a chick.

Some parents in the 8,900-student district in the San Francisco Bay region demanded the right to remove their children from lessons they found objectionable. Superintendent Kirsten Vital refused, telling reporters at the time: “This is really anti-bullying curriculum. Not health or sex ed. It’s not appropriate necessarily to have an opt-out provision.” The parents sued the district but lost.

Lawsuit or not, the district has worked hard over the years to define and refine its anti-bullying curriculum. “We have provided professional development, crafted school and district policies, enacted instructional leadership practices to guide and shape those efforts,” she says. “This plan of action was vetted and adopted by the Alameda board, by staff and community in interative community engagement efforts over time to answer questions and educate the public writ large to issues of bullying and our need to educate students about our legal and moral imperative of safeguarding the rights of all people.”

Safe Haven
Few would dispute Vital’s argument, but the debate over when and how school districts address the problem of bullying remains broadly unresolved. Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, says the issue has become “highly politicized.” He asserts it is grossly exaggerated by special interest groups with their own agendas.

Conversely, Peter DeWitt, principal of Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park, N.Y., and author of the upcoming book Dignity for All (Corwin Press, 2012), complains most school districts have not done enough.

“I’m a little tired of school districts that choose to bury their head in the sand on this issue,” says DeWitt, who blogs on the subject of bullying. “They have students who are at risk of dropping out of school, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex and are considering death by suicide. If schools do not include language to help these students or ignore the issues, they are part of the problem and are allowing the bullying to occur. By not standing up against it, they are condoning bullying behavior.”

Back in Williamsville, Superintendent Martzloff has come to a similar but simpler conclusion. The district operated multiple wellness and anti-bullying programs before the death of Jamey Rodemeyer. They remain in place and have been beefed up where possible, according to Martzloff.

But one of the most important lessons he’s learned is simply that districts must create and promote an atmosphere of trust between children and adults. “Kids need to know they can go to a grownup — a teacher, a principal, someone on staff — when they have a problem, whether it’s bullying or something else,” Martzloff says.

“That confidence has to extend to local parents and the community, too,” he adds. “In our case, Jamey’s death produced a lot of national coverage, and some of it was very slanted. But if local parents and the community believe in what you’re doing as a school district and as educators, then things will generally turn out OK.”

Scott LaFee is a writer with the University of California San Diego Health Sciences in San Diego, Calif. E-mail: scott.lafee@gmail.com

 

 

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