Educators, school safety experts and anti-bullying advocates typically agree that bullying is a serious issue. They also agree that anti-bullying strategies should be an integral component of a school's safety plan. However, differences remain in how bullying should be addressed. Those differences have become magnified as bullying has become an increasingly politicized issue. Mix in media hysteria on bullying and teen suicide issues, and educators find their genuine efforts to address bullying challenged by distorted public perceptions and politically driven, overreaching and overly prescriptive outside mandates on bullying issues.
Practical Strategies for Managing Bullying
Discipline policies, student conduct codes, and school climate strategies have long been in place in most schools to prevent bullying incidents. School leaders can refine their approach more effectively by taking a comprehensive leadership approach versus simply creating a new policy or implementing a new bullying prevention plan. Practical steps for managing bullying under highly political and parent-intense climates include:
- Understanding the politics. Most educators and parents are blind to the behind-the-scenes politics of bullying. Recognizing that there are more agendas in play than simply bullying itself is critical.
- Evaluating discipline policies and school climate strategies. Are current discipline policies adequate to address bullying behaviors? Is your district complying with state anti-bullying laws? Are school climate strategies in place to address respect, diversity, peaceful resolution of conflict and belonging? Is a bullying prevention program needed, or do school climate strategies adequately address underlying bullying behaviors?
- Examining mental health support for students. Have you assessed the adequacy and coordination of your district's internal resources, identification and referral processes and programs for student mental health, including suicide awareness and prevention?
- Assessing security and supervision. Bullying often occurs in hot spots where there is less adult supervision such as restrooms, hallways, stairwells, cafeterias and bus drop-off and pick-up areas. Is supervision and security at these areas adequate?
- Supporting effective classroom management. Are teachers aware of school-conduct codes and behavioral expectations? Have discussions been held with teachers, and are teachers given support on classroom management strategies?
- Reviewing federal civil rights laws and training staff. Have you conferred with legal counsel, assessed district policies and trained staff on federal civil rights laws that could apply to bullying complaints and lawsuits? The Department of Education recently issued a 10-page "Dear Colleagues" letter to schools outlining Title IX and other civil rights laws the department can use to initiate investigations against school districts in response to complaints made by parents and others about how schools do or do not address bullying incidents.
- Engaging law enforcement when appropriate. Bullying offenses also may constitute violations of criminal law. Assault, extortion, sexual assault, threats and menacing, hazing and other behaviors could rise to the level of a crime. Examine procedures and staff training on engaging law enforcement and reporting crimes.
- Training. Students should be trained on school policies, conduct codes, reporting mechanisms, and prevention and intervention strategies on bullying. Staff should be trained on laws, district policies, student conduct codes, school climate strategies and processes to follow in preventing and responding to bullying.
- Developing a plan. A communications plan is necessary to inform students how to manage and report bullying incidents, to educate parents on what they can do and what to expect from schools if their child is bullied, and to inform the community of the district's bullying prevention, intervention and enforcement efforts. Exercise caution so as not to feed into media, political and public discourse that could contribute to suicide contagion.
- Getting an independent assessment. Are you doing what you say you are doing about bullying and other school safety issues? Identify the gaps between policy and practice. Often, day-to-day practices at the building level are not congruent with plans that are in writing.
- Educating legislators and leaders of professional associations. Special interest groups should not have the only voice in dictating new laws. Superintendents, principals and school board members should develop a stronger voice to make known their perspectives, needs and opinions on laws and funding shifts proposed by state and federal legislators. School leaders should also communicate more strongly to state and national professional education associations that lobby for them. Schools should incorporate bullying into their comprehensive school safety plans. Being aware of the politics, determining if new steps need to be taken, and communicating with the school and community will help focus on the best interests of student safety.