Bullying: Why districts and parents fail: PART 3 – reporting failures

This series has discussed the law and the definition of bullying. Now let’s take a look at how bullying incidents are reported.

A student bullied on the playground may report it to a teacher on the playground. Or a paraprofessional, or a teacher’s aide. They may not report it at all (more likely). The bullying may very well be witnessed by one of these adults.

How about in the cafeteria? Again, it may be reported to a “lunch aide,” or a teacher, or a server. On a school bus? Reported to the driver?

Do any of these people know the law? Do they know what they are required to do with the information?

NOTE: It is not for a witness, or the staff member made aware of an incident, to determine if bullying in fact has occurred. That is what an investigation is for. If a student reports being bullied, harassed, or anything of that nature (regardless of words used), that report must be acted upon, it cannot be filtered out by the one being told.

States may have reporting laws or policies. School districts should minimally have a plan.

Within the Massachusetts Model Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan[1. Model Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, June 2014] we find:

“Reports of bullying or retaliation may be made by staff, students, parents or guardians, or others, and may be oral or written. Oral reports made by or to a staff member shall be recorded in writing.” ~Section V(A)

That is a very important statement, but alas, this is a model plan. When we look into a district policy (plan = goal; policy = rule), we find:

“Students who believe that they are a target of bullying or retaliation, who observe bullying or retaliation, or who have reasonable grounds to believe that bullying or retaliation is taking place, are obligated to report such bullying or retaliation to a member of the school staff, and may be subject to discipline for failing to report bullying or retaliation. However, the target shall not be subject to discipline for failing to report bullying or retaliation.

“School staff who witness or become aware of bullying or retaliation shall immediately report such bullying or retaliation to the Principal/Headmaster/Superintendent/School Committee, or his/her designee.” ~Brookline Public Schools, Bullying Prevention Policy[2. Bullying Prevention Policy, Section IV]

And this has been translated into the Public Schools of Brookline Bullying Plan as (in part):

“Reporting by Staff
All staff will immediately report bullying or retaliation the staff member has witnessed or become aware of to the Principal/Superintendent/School Committee or designee or his/her designee.”[3. Public Schools of Brookline, Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, Section B]

These examples are from one district in one state, but are very similar to others. These are the areas you need to check, it is vital to understand the how reporting is supposed to work.

What did we just learn?

Any “report” to any staff member, by anyone, of [potential / actual] bullying must be reported, in writing, by that staff member to the appropriate person in the school or district.

If a student feels bullied or harassed (and that student does NOT have to use those words) and mentions this, even in passing, to any staff member, that staff member must report this in writing. The staff member does NOT investigate, but reports. In writing.

If a parent mentions that their child is being bullied, harassed, or other similar circumstance, in an email, in an informal conversation, during a parent meeting, to a teacher, a bus aide, the custodian, any staff member, that staff member must report it in writing to the proper school district designated person.

Now that I repeated that several times I will make the bold statement that this rarely happens.

I have worked with families in multiple states (MA, RI, MD, etc.) and it is always the same. When they come to me, things are already out of control and the family tells me that the school is not doing anything about the bullying of their child. I ask if they have reported the problem, and they show me multiple emails, sometimes over a span of two years, others over a few months, that have never resulted in any solution. Typically the teacher, but sometimes up to the superintendent, are notified. And nothing happens. This is always a violation of the school and/or district and/or state law or policy and/or plan.

We first rectify this, but at some point it is important to find out what happened with those emails. Often I will have the family submit a Request and Parental Consent for Student’s Education Records to the district. This will get copies of the entire educational record including internal emails and other records. More on this in a later installment.

School districts must do a better job training their staff. This is district wide and from the Superintendent to the administrators, the teachers, the paraprofessionals, the lunch staff, the building staff, the transportation staff, etc. Custodians often play a very important role in this! Especially in the younger grades.

It is the school district’s responsibility to enforce their own plan, to implement their own policy, and to follow any applicable state laws. It is generally a matter of education that can, and should, be handled in a yearly training on their bullying policy, as well as the concept of a “safe school” in general. Remember that the federal government tells us that 22% of students report being bullied.[5.U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2014; page vi.] That is one in five. Yes, it is happening in every school, in every district, in every state.

Every school district should have an “official” bullying report form. It typically is available on the district web site and at individual schools. Although it is not necessary to use, as I have noted, other [less formal] reports are often ignored.

If a parent believes their child is being bullied and wants it successfully reported, it takes finding the official form and filling it out. Emails and phone calls should be enough, but practice shows that typically they are not.

Find the form. Fill it out. Hand deliver it to the principal’s office or the superintendent’s office and ask for a photocopy that they date stamp. Most will do this, some don’t. But ask. Then email the principal or superintendent (or both), notify them that you hand delivered the form (even if you have the date stamped copy), and request acknowledgment that they received the form. Then end the email with something like this:

“I fully expect that this will be handled in accordance with the [school district] Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, the State of [your state] Laws and Regulations ([site the law]), and all the applicable federal civil rights statutes and regulations enforced by Office for Civil Rights.”

The last part of that is important if the bullying may have, or did, involve any manner of discrimination of a “protected class.”

“The statutes that OCR enforces include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 19641 (Title VI), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 19722 (Title IX), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 19733 (Section 504); and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 19904 (Title II). Section 504 and Title II prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. School districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department’s implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees.” ~DOE OCR[4. United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Dear Colleague letter of October 2010.]

More on this in the next installment.

Why does this happen? Why are email and oral reports, REPORTS, ignored? I can only guess. Accepting a report means work. It means admitting there may be bullying. It may appear that one’s anti-bullying efforts are failing. Or that one is failing at one’s job. These may be the perceptions, but not acting on an email report, an oral report, seeing some action, is generally illegal, and almost always contrary to policy, plan and procedures.

If bullying is not reported, nothing will be done about it. If bullying is reported but not acted upon, nothing will be done about it. It must be reported, loud and clear.

Next will be a discussion of how civil rights are often a big part of the discussion.

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