What Are Schools Responsible for when it Comes to Bullying?


October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, which lends itself to having this discussion yet again, even though we could, conceivably, have this conversation every month. It's a conversation I have on a regular basis due to the nature of my job, but it's also a topic that has heated debate and, without the discussion, has dire consequences. I work in a middle school as an assistant principal/guidance dean, and much of this falls under my job description. When the most recent school shooting occurred in Nevada, I waited for two things to happen: one, that we would discuss gun control again, and two, that someone who heard about the 12-year-old boy who shot a teacher, wounded 2 other students, and then killed himself would ask, "Why aren't schools doing anything about bullying?" Gun debate aside, let's discuss schools and their responsibility in reacting to bullying.

Don't get me wrong: I share the national indignation about when schools don't address things, but I am also someone who works on the inside, and I can tell you that we deal with bullying on a regular basis and hand out consequences for the act when it occurs at school. But I am equally as indignant when I watch films on the subject that portray educators as complete morons when it comes to handling these delicate situations. Last year I tried to watch the movie Bully, a 2011 documentary on bullying in U.S. schools that sensationalized the topic to a disappointing degree. But films like Bully don't help the problem when they only show one side and neglect to show what happens when schools intervene successfully. Showing the sensational one-sided debate of this problem serves to fuel the fire that schools do "nothing."

How do we win this war?

First of all, it's not just a war for schools. I read and watch an awful lot of things that happen online through social media and am just as astounded at the non-responses out there. For instance, I've watched with disgust the actions of many male gamers who display sexist and violence agendas against girl gamers, as well as the misogynist themes in the gaming world. This response from Aisha Tyler, while not very SFW, had me cheering at her bold stance, but watching the fallout was disappointing because no one was holding the male gamers responsible for their actions. When Stella Creasy got rape threats, who did we blame and hold responsible? Adria Richards and Alexandra Jordan (who is 9 years old) both experienced tech conference-related bullying. Did we continue asking, "What is the tech world going to do about online sexism and bullying?" Not really. That's died down until the next time it happens, and we know it will happen again. Sherri Shepherd. Caroline Criado-Perez. Zerlina Maxwell. I could, unfortunately, go on and on. The point is that bullying happens on a national level through social media at breakneck speed. My students, all students, are watching this happen, but when we boil down violence and bullying at a smaller level, we tend to hear two very distinct messages:

The Question Message: What are schools doing about bullying?

The Blame Message: Schools aren't doing anything.

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All of these previous examples are acts of bullying of varying levels that simply aren't happening within the school system, but schools will continue to be blamed for the continuation of bullying. Parents and students are looking for resources to combat this, and they are out there, but where do you start?

To begin with, we need to ensure that we are differentiating between BULLYING and BOTHERING. Sometimes, it's simply a conflict with a friend that hasn't been resolved. Oftentimes, parents contact me and use the term "bullying" when it's simply an issue of peer groups that aren't getting along. If the bullying is happening at school, then teachers should be aware of it first. The first thing I ask students or parents when they contact me about bullying is, "What was the response of the classroom teacher when this happened?" Many times, they tell me that they never let the teacher know about it. This is probably why we hear that schools "don't do anything." Sometimes, we simply don't know about the covert, snide comments or whatever behavior is going on.

What is bullying then?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, bullying is:

"Characterized by aggression used within a relationship where the aggressor(s) has more real or perceived power than the target, and the aggression is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying can involve overt physical behavior or verbal, emotional, or social behaviors."

If it is between friends who have had a fallout, then it's not bullying. This peer issue is much easier to resolve because it doesn't have a victim-aggressor structure. Ask your school administrators what their professional opinion is on this, and make sure there is a team available to respond to it.

Secondly, ask your child where the bullying is occurring. If it is off school grounds, it's not a school issue. It becomes the school's issue when the bullying is carried over and fallout from it affects the learning environment. Kids are bullying each other online, through text messages, and by way of using many apps. Those issues make it harder for us to dole out consequences when they are happening in the evening and on weekends. That's not the school's domain, so we don't have jurisdiction. I've gotten myself in plenty of hot water trying to discipline a child for something they did while in the care of their parents. When it occurs and detrimentally affects the academic achievement of students and disrupts classroom instruction, then schools can get involved. Schools are responsible for responding to issues that take place in the classroom and at school-related events (sports, concerts, etc…) but not for things that take place on social media or off school grounds if the problems don't follow students to school.

Thirdly, responses to bullying in terms of discipline aren't shared with the victim's parents. Several years ago I had a student who displayed all the signs of being bullied. He was often truant, slept through class, and displayed an enormous amount of sadness, as well as unexplained physical markings. He was constantly losing his belongings and never seemed to have enough to eat at lunch. While his parents never contacted me about this, I inquired about it enough to determine that the whole lot of them needed guidance about friend expectations. This boy was able to leave this popular group and find a smaller group of friends who liked him for who he was, but it took an inordinate amount of time to get to the bottom of it.

The boy who was bullied never talked to his parents about what was happening, and it took a team of educators to monitor and gather data about him in order to form a reasonable response. By the time I spoke to his father about what was occurring, he was well aware of the damage that was done, but he demanded to know what I did to the other kids in terms of discipline. It is illegal for me to share this information with the other family. I could not tell him whether I handed out detentions or suspensions to the other boys, because the law prevents me from doing so. This violates privacy issues and is something I have to remind parents of on a weekly basis. If you contact me about what punishment I gave to a student that is not your child, you won't find out what is happening. Schools are responsible for responding to bullying complaints even if you don't know the exact consequences handed down.

In my experience, this is the number one reason why parents of a bullied child say that nothing is happening. It's because we cannot tell them. Likewise, I would not tell another parent's personal information about their child. Knowing this, however, doesn't mean that once punishments and consequences are doled out that the bully won't continue his or her behavior. Likely, they will. And each time they do, schools will have a response to it. It's not that schools always "don't do anything," it's that we cannot be specific about the details of another child's discipline response. All we can assure parents of is that we have responded to it, and sometimes, parents aren't receptive or accepting of that rule.

I say all this at the risk of sounding like schools are off the hook, but they are not. We are accountable for responding to bullying within school boundaries, and there are many ways to make this happen. Staying active in your child's life, including their academic life, is paramount. So is ensuring that there are policies in place to respond to bullying (even if you don't get specifics, know that they're in place). Finally, remember that not all responses will come from schools and that getting law enforcement involved may be required, especially if the bullying events are taking place outside of school hours. When we say it takes a village, we mean it.

- By Kelly Wickham
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