After years of torment from bullies, 15-year-old Bart Palosz of Greenwich, Conn., took his own life on the first day of school in September. His death has led many to question the effectiveness of district bullying policies, and whether or not school leaders are responsible for identifying students who may harm themselves.
The Greenwich Public Schools’ bullying policy states that teachers and staff who witness acts of bullying should notify the principal and file a written report. The principal then will notify the student’s parents, and have them sign a consent form allowing the school to investigate. The principal will complete a written report when the investigation concludes, the policy states.
The district cannot comment on any student’s individual record, says district spokesperson Kim Eves, but a police investigation is underway to determine if protocol was followed.
“We are reviewing all policies, procedures, and practices regarding bullying to make sure they align with Connecticut state law and with accepted best practices nationally,” Greenwich Superintendent William McKersie wrote in a letter to parents shortly after Palosz’s death. “Equally important, we are examining how to make sure that we uphold these policies and procedures so that any reported incident is investigated and the appropriate consequences occur for all involved.”
In the months before his death, Palosz posted suicidal thoughts on his public Google+ page, of which the school and his family were unaware, according to published reports. McKersie has announced plans to examine how the district can work with parents to monitor social media sites for evidence of dangerous behavior.
One-third of all school-aged children are bullied each year, according to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Students who are bullied often suffer academically and lose self-esteem and self-worth, several studies have found. And a 2008 Yale School of Medicine report found that school-aged bullying victims were two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than were other children.
“Students feel alone when they’re being bullied,” says Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center. “It’s important that students know that schools do pay attention to bullying, and there is a place they can go to talk and get the support and resources they need.”
A decade ago, few states had any bullying prevention laws. Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-bullying legislation, and most schools have developed policies in line with those laws. However, there is great variance from state to state in terms of the definition of bullying, what procedures are taken after it is reported, and how often anti-bullying programs take place, Hertzog says.
School bullying protocol should include the following characteristics, Hertzog says:
- A clear definition of what constitutes bullying, including cyberbullying and bullying outside of school hours.
- A consistent procedure for reporting when a student is bullied. This should include who students or teachers go to to report incidents. There is not yet enough data to tell if anonymous reporting programs are effective, Hertzog says.
- An investigative procedure, stating the people who will be involved and what step should be taken after a report is filed
- Sanctions for those doing the bullying, such as in-school suspensions.
- Supports such as counseling for both the victims and the bullies, who often are going through their own problems.
Districts can be held liable in court if they do not take action on known harassment, says Mariam Azin, an educational research psychologist and CEO and President of Mazin Education, a company that works with schools to assess, identify, and serve at-risk students. “Sometimes administrators feel that they are only responsible for academics,” Azin says. “But there’s a lot of research that shows that kids can’t learn if they are not in a safe environment. You can’t separate the two.”
Administrators must decide how to disseminate their policy to students and teachers, and how data will be collected to monitor its effectiveness, Azin says. They should also develop plans for training the adults in schools, including teachers, aides, and bus drivers, to understand the policy and their role in enforcing it.
More at www.pacer.org/bullying.