Bullying Beat Down
To that end, both the state and federal Departments of Education (DOE) have taken action to combat the effects of bullying. The federal DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is endorsing measures taken at the local level to reduce bullying and its effects, providing resources to school administrators and encouraging anti-bullying policies. “Bullying fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can seriously impair the physical and psychological health of its victims and create conditions that negatively affect learning, thereby undermining the ability of students to achieve their full potential,” a letter from the OCR to local school administration sent in October 2010 states. “The movement to adopt anti-bullying policies reflects schools’ appreciation of their important responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment for all students.”
At the state level, the Georgia DOE has mandated that school systems have a policy in place that addresses bullying specifically. As in the case of Morgan County, many systems addressed bullying in their behaviorial policies, but didn’t have a one to the extent set in place by the state DOE.
“We already had a rule in place in our Code of Conduct under ‘harassment,’” Superintendent Dr. Ralph Bennett said.
The policy in place was taken and re-worked with model policies suggested by the DOEs. The Morgan County Board of Education unanimously voted Monday, Sept. 12 to table the updated Board Policy JCDAG regarding bullying for public comment.
by the Numbers
While the state didn’t mandate that school systems keep data about bullying until this school year, Morgan County went ahead and started to keep tabs on bullying beginning last school year. According to information provided by the Central Office, there were 19 recorded instances on bullying in county schools last school year. Last year’s categories of bullying types included bullying based on disability, gender, national origin and race; there was also an “other” category. (These categories are based on recommendations from the OCR.) Of the 19 instances, one fell into the “race” category while the other 18 were classified as “other.”
While it’s difficult to define what’s bullying and what’s not based on old data that doesn’t specifically cite bullying, in fiscal year 2011 there were 28 recorded incidences of fighting at county schools – nine at the high school and 19 at the middle school – three recorded incidences of threats or intimidation – one at the high school and two at the middle school – and 541 instances labeled under “Other discipline incident,” according to numbers provided by Bennett from the state DOE Web site.
“How an administration chooses to classify bullying can skew the data,” Bennett said.
Tammy Denson, student information system coordinator who keeps track of system-wide data, expects the numbers will grow more diverse this year as teachers and administrators become aware of what’s classified as bullying and the sub-categories of bullying. Additionally, in an email, Bennett said that a category relating to sexual orientation will be added to the system’s breakdown of bullying data.
The Proposed Policy
The school board will vote on whether or not to approve the updated bullying policy at their next regular monthly meeting on Monday, Oct. 10. Their reason for tabling the decision was to gain public input. The policy is available for viewing through the board’s Web site: morgan.k12.ga.us. Those who don’t have access to a computer can pick up a printed copy of the policy at the Central Office.
The proposed policy forbids students from bullying, harassing or intimidating other students “through words or actions.” It defines bullying as “any aggressive behavior that intends to cause harm, distress and humiliation.” There are four specific criteria that must exist for an incident to be classified as bullying: “an imbalance of power, a pattern of repeated behavior, a student is humiliated by the behavior, and the other student receives gratification from the humiliation.”
“We have to be careful,” Morgan County High School Principal Dr. Mark Wilson told the board at the September meeting. “It’s (bullying) a specific thing and it has to meet the criteria.”
Bullying behavior, according to the policy, includes the old-school “direct physical contact such as hitting or shoving” (think Scut Farkus); “verbal assaults such as teasing or name-calling” (think Nellie Oleson’s torment of Laura); the much newer “use of electronic methods to harass, threaten or humiliate;” and “social isolation and/or manipulation.”
The policy dictates that students are expected to immediately report incidences of bullying to the principal or “designee” – this is a diversion from the DOE’s suggestion, which says incidences should be reported within three to four days, Bennett said – and that bullies can expect disciplinary action that ranges from loss of a privilege to seat or class reassignment to suspension and maybe even expulsion from school.
The policy also sets the expectation that staff will investigate bullying incidences promptly, thoroughly and confidentially. Moreover, staff is expected to intervene if they see bullying occur.
The victims of bullying are protected by the policy, which calls for the prohibition of “retaliatory behavior against any complainant or participant in the complaint process.” It also offers counseling or other interventions “to address the social-emotional, behavioral, and academic needs” of both victims and bullies.
ast the Playground:
Where Bullying occurs
The board proposed policy, of course, prohibits bullying on school campuses, buses and at school-related activities. It also forbids electronic bullying (cyber bullying) “using school equipment, school networks, e-mail systems or committed at school.”
The evolution of bullying has taken students to torment through electronic means. The policy outlines that bullying using school computers, school-assigned e-mail accounts (the school system owns those accounts) or even school networks won’t be tolerated; from here, though, the line between school protection and free speech blurs a bit.
“This is going to be the hardest issue for our administration to deal with because it’s outside of school,” Bennett said.
What if a student uses social media to bully another, but does it all out of the bounds of school? Even more confusing, what is a student bullies another using some form of social media while at school, but does so using their own hardware?
“Students cannot access social media such as Facebook via system computers,” Bennett writes in email correspondence. “However, keep in mind that they have access during the school day through their own devices. If a building administrator could establish that harassing messages were being posted during the school day by a student who was at school, then an administrator might have grounds for bringing a bullying charge depending on the specifics of each individual case.”
If bullying spills from the Internet to school, Bennett said, and an incident takes place, the administrator can certainly cite the electronic bullying done from home to support the case.
What’s the Process?
If a student has been victimized or witnessed bullying, he/she should follow the procedure used for a disciplinary issue, Bennett said.
Report the behavior to a supervising teacher. “The policy calls for a student to report the incident immediately to the principal or designee, so either the teacher, acting on behalf of the student, can report to the designated administrator or the student may follow up with a report to an administrator,” Bennett writes. “Some of this will be a function of the student’s age and maturity level.”
When at home, the student should let their parent or guardian know what they reported. “The policy requires each school to notify parents of all students involved as soon as the facts have been established,” Bennett writes.
Parents or guardians are encouraged to follow up with any concerns they may have. Students and parents or guardians can call the state DOE’s 1-877-SAY STOP (1-877-729-7867) School Safety Hotline with concerns. “Students seeking advice for handling suspected bullying situations may also contact their school counselors,” Bennett writes. “All schools have anti-bullying resources which are coordinated by the school counselors, in most cases.”
In the case of the accused bully, once confirmation has been made that bullying occurred, a consequence is assigned. If the student is in grade six through 12 and this is his/her third bullying offense in one school year, he/she will most likely be assigned to an alternative school, according to the policy. Moreover, prior incidences of bullying will also be taken into consideration when assigning consequences. Then, the information is recorded and administrators follow up with both the victim and the bully.
As it stands, this is how bullying in Morgan County schools will be dealt with in the future, provided the school board approves this policy at their October meeting. If you have something you’d like the board to consider, Bennett welcomes your emails and will share your input with the board. You can send them to email@example.com.
Printed in the September 29 edition.