Back to School: Bullying Basics

School is back in session for the 2012-2013 academic year and the time has arrived for school districts to fully implement all aspects of Connecticut’s anti-bullying law.  July 1, 2012 marked the deadline for implementation of certain remaining aspects of the state’s bullying law last revised in 2011.  With the advent of a new school year and with the July 1, 2012 deadline having come and gone, school districts should be busy reviewing their districts’ bullying policies and related policies such as their anti-discrimination and anti- harassment policies, any related regulations, examining their safe school climate plans, and creating or revising procedures for implementation of the plans, policies and regulations to ensure compliance with all aspects of the law.

The 2011 revision to Connecticut’s bullying law resulted in a strengthened law that changed the definition of bullying, specifically adding cyberbullying  to the new definition, expanding upon what constitutes bullying and upon where bullying can occur and under what circumstances, and added numerous requirements for school districts such as the establishment of safe school climate plans, the designation of safe school climate specialists at each district school, establishment of safe school committees at each school and the appointment of a district wide safe school climate coordinator.

Here is a non-exhaustive checklist to aid schools and school employees in carrying out their legal responsibilities including notification and training requirements and how to facilitate, investigate, respond to and maintain records of complaints of bullying.

Minnesota School District Enters Into Five Year Consent Degree with Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights in Resolution of Peer-on-Peer Harassment and Discrimination Claims Based Upon Sex and Sexual Orientation

The Anoka-Hennepin school district (District) in Minnesota recently entered into a five year consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to resolve two separate actions brought by six current or former district students alleging peer-on-peer harassment and discrimination based upon sex and sexual orientation. The actions were brought against the district, its school board and several individual school administrators.

The negotiated consent decree provides for detailed remedial measures aimed at eliminating and preventing future instances of harassment in its education programs and activities and also requires payment of $270,000 to the plaintiffs in full settlement of the Title IV and Title IX claims. 

The agreed upon measures under the consent decree are numerous, varied and comprehensive. They range from required policy reviews and revisions (including a revision to provide that all harassment, including that based upon non-conformity to gender stereotypes and/or gender identity and expression, is prohibited in the District), to appointment of both a District Title IX Coordinator to address sex based harassment and an Equity Coordinator to focus solely on sexual orientation–based harassment. Other remedial measures to be undertaken by the District include: adoption of procedures for electronic tracking of  harassment incidents involving sex-based or sexual orientation based harassment; the hiring of a third party consultant to review policies, procedures and advise and oversee the District’s success in implementing the required changes;  student and employee education and training; expansion of the District’s existing anti-bullying/anti-harassment task force; identification of harassment hot-spots in its middle and high schools; adoption of peer leadership program in its middle and high schools for addressing harassment; the continuation of the Superintendent’s annual meeting with  students at every middle and high school; and implementation of a program to monitor and assess the effectiveness of its anti-harassment efforts including administering anti-bullying surveys.

The remedial measures under the consent decree mirror many of the newly adopted responsibilities placed on Connecticut school districts under our state’s recently revised bullying statute. The statute has called for school districts to undertake a comprehensive approach to prevent bullying and create a positive school climate. This case should also be of high interest to the Connecticut educational community in light of the bullying legislation as well as legislation passed last spring specifically prohibiting discrimination based upon gender identity or gender expression. What are your schools doing proactively in response to this potential type of discrimination?  

 

New Anti-Bullying Statute Goes Into Effect Today

If you haven't already, be sure to get a copy of Substitute Bill 1138, Public Act 11-232, effective July 1, 2011, which makes sweeping changes to the State's anti-bullying statute applicable to public school districts.  The new law adds specific prohibitions against cyber-bullying, redefines "bullying" for purposes of the statute, and requires school districts to replace their 2009 school bullying "policy" with a "safe school climate plan" (to be approved by the school board and submitted to the Department of Education by January 1, 2012).  The safe school climate plan must include (beginning July 1, 2012) the appointment of a district "safe school climate coordinator" to oversee a "safe school climate specialist" at each school, who shall (beginning July 1, 2012) be the school principal or the principal's designee.  Also beginning July 1, 2012, each school principal must set up a safe school climate committee which shall include at least one parent or guardian of a student enrolled in the school.  The committee is responsible for reviewing completed bullying investigation reports and identifying and addressing patterns of bullying in the school, reviewing and amending school policies relating to bullying, making recommendations on school climate issues, and collaborating with the school climate coordinator regarding the collection of bullying data.  The parent representative should participate in all of this, except the first two items "or any other activity that may compromise the confidentiality of a student".

The revised definition of bullying states "(A) the repeated use by one or more students of a written, oral or electronic communication, such as cyberbullying, directed at or referring to another student attending school in the same school district, or (B) a physical act or gesture by one or more students repeatedly directed at another student attending school in the same school district, that (i) causes physical or emotional harm to such student or damage to such student's property, (ii) places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property, (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for such student, (iv) infringes on the rights of such student at school, or (v) substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school."

Beyond this, bullying includes, but is not limited to "a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act or gesture based on any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance, or mental, physical, developmental or sensory disability, or by association with an individual or group who has or is perceived to have one or more of such characteristics".

School employees who witness acts of bullying or receive reports of bullying, under the new "safe school climate plan" must orally notify the safe school climate specialist not later than one school day after the incident or report, and must file a written report no more than 2 school days afterwards.

School employees required to comply with these reporting requirements include teachers, substitute teachers, school administrators, superintendents, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, physicians, paraprofessionals, coaches, or independent contractors who regularly work with schoolchildren.

After the investigation into the alleged act of bullying is complete, if the act of bullying is verified, notification must be provided to the parents of the alleged victim and the alleged bully within 48 hours of the completion of the investigation, and an invitation to a meeting to discuss the incident must be issued to each set of parents.

If the act of bullying constitutes "criminal conduct", the new safe school climate plan must require that the principal or designee notify the local law enforcement agency of the alleged conduct.

If the Department of Education is able ("within available appropriations") to develop a model safe school climate plan for districts to use, it will do so, and along with instruments designed to collect school climate assessments, will be distributed these items to districts through the Connecticut Association of Schools.  The Department may also establish ("within available appropriations") a state-wide safe school climate resource network to help districts identify, prevent and educate people regarding school bullying in the state.

This is not, by any means, a comprehensive listing of all of the provisions in the new statute.  We urge you to read the Public Act, stay tuned for additional information, start thinking about the publications and notifications you may need to revise in your own district before the fall student/parent handbooks come out, and consult with your school attorney for advice!

Free Cyberbullying Curriculum Available from NSBA

A free curriculum is available from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to address cyberbullying issues at NSBA.  NSBA partnered with a group called CyberSmart to produce this curriculum (reported to be "research-based" for those concerned about those things), and it is described on the NSBA website as addressing all of the major issues: 

 In developing these lessons, CyberSmart! adopted an integrated approach, examining all current research findings and using best practices from the fields of cyber security, school violence prevention, and character education to impact behavioral change. Together, these materials offer schools the opportunity to begin a dialogue with students and build a sustained cyberbullying prevention campaign to continually remind the school community about safe, ethical online use.

If anyone uses or has used the curriculum, please post comments here and/or provide feedback to NSBA - they are promising to make adjustments if there are any problems based on feedback from users.

Sad Reminder of Why We Have Anti-Bullying Laws

Parents sue Ohio school over bullied son's suicide

Associated Press; Fri Apr 3, 11:48 am ET  

 

MENTOR, Ohio – An Ohio couple has filed a lawsuit saying school officials failed to stop bullying that they claim led to their 17-year-old son's suicide.

 

The suit was filed in federal court last week, almost two years to the day when Eric Mohat shot himself in the head. Parents William and Janis Mohat say their son was taunted and harassed by classmates at Mentor High School for months before his death on March 27, 2007.

 

Their lawsuit accuses the school district about 25 miles northeast of Cleveland of violating the high school junior's civil right to safety.

 

The teen's father says they would drop the suit if the school system adopted tougher regulations on bullying.

 

Without commenting on the litigation, school officials say the district takes bullying seriously.

 

Yahoo News

 

While we don't know the whole story, we can at least read between the lines in this story to see the pain and loss felt by the family and their belief that the school system could have done more to help their child when he was being bullied by his classmates.  In the wake of recent amendments to Connecticut's anti-bullying statutes and the resulting changes to board policies across the state, we continue to parse the language to determine whether an act of insult by one student against another constitutes "bullying" such that it needs to be "verified" and the parents of both parties need to be "notified".  While we are doing this, let's not forget that whether it meets the technical definition of bullying under the statute and board policy or not, the act has caused emotional hurt to someone and needs to be addressed in some way so that the child can come to school and learn in a welcoming environment.