Bullying: Why districts and parents fail: PART 6 – Safe people, plans, and students

Part 3 of this series dealt with the reporting (or lack thereof) of bullying. Now we will discuss what happens, or should happen, once the report is filed.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services specifies “Key Components in State Anti-Bullying Laws” and following the Report Bullying section it discusses …

Investigating and Responding to Bullying

“Includes a procedure for promptly investigating and responding to any report of an incident of bullying, including immediate intervention strategies for protecting the victim from additional bullying or retaliation, and includes notification to parents of the victim, or reported victim, of bullying and the parents of the alleged perpetrator, and, if appropriate, notification to law enforcement officials.

“Example Components of LEA Policies: Investigating and Responding to Bullying

Massachusetts: 2010 Mass. Adv. Legis. Serv. Ch. No. 71.37O(g) (2010): “…Upon receipt of such a report, the school principal or a designee shall promptly conduct an investigation. If the school principal or a designee determines that bullying or retaliation has occurred, the school principal or designee shall (i) notify the local law enforcement agency if the school principal or designee believes that criminal charges may be pursued against a perpetrator; (ii) take appropriate disciplinary action; (iii) notify the parents or guardians of a perpetrator; and (iv) notify the parents or guardians of the victim, and to the extent consistent with state and federal law, notify them of the action taken to prevent any further acts of bullying or retaliation.”

“The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) contains provisions restricting release of information pertaining to disciplinary actions taken against students. State and local officials are encouraged to seek guidance to make sure any policies comply with these provisions.

For additional examples regarding requirements for investigating and responding to bullying, see: GA. Code Ann. § 20-2-751.4.c.3 (2010); Iowa Cod § 280.28.3.f (2008); Or. Rev. Stat. § 339.356.2.h (2009).” [1. StopBullying.gov]

The first thing, of course, is to stop the bullying, separate the students, or whatever is necessary. Then a determination is made as to if calling the police is appropriate.

You must look at the school district’s Bullying Plan to see what is next. The Bullying Policy, if there is one, most likely is similar to the state law. The Plan is what they say they must do.

This is from the plan of one district (emphasis mine):

C. Responding to a Report of Bullying or Retaliation
1. Safety
Upon receiving a report of bullying or retaliation, the Principal/Superintendent /School Committee or designee, with the assistance of appropriate support staff, takes prompt steps to assess the need to restore a sense of safety to the alleged target(s), along with those who report, witness, provide information in an investigation of, or have reliable information about, bullying or retaliation. The /Principal/Superintendent/School Committee or designee also takes steps to protect these individuals from possible further bullying or retaliation. Responses to promote safety may include, but not be limited to, creating a personal safety plan; predetermining seating arrangements for the target and/or the aggressor in the classroom, at lunch, or on a transportation vehicle; identifying a staff member who will act as a “safe person” for the target; and altering the aggressor’s schedule and access to the target. The /Principal/Superintendent/School Committee or designee takes additional steps to promote safety during the course of and after the bullying or retaliation investigation, as necessary. [2. Brookline MA Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan]

One of the first actions the district does for the target is “restore a sense of safety.” I liken this to saying that a purpose of NATO is to make Poland feel safe.

A “sense of safety” is a good thing,  but it is detrimental if there is not actual safety. This is not a semantic argument either. It is rather easy to make someone feel safe, it is quite another thing to make them actually safe. It may partially be a liability issue since you can make sure that someone feels safe (just ask them), but it is much harder to make them safe. If you do not plan to make a target safe, if you cannot make the target safe, then the school cannot be safe. Then the entire bullying policy, bullying plan and anti-bullying effort is a farce. The target must not only feel safe, but must be safe, to the best of the ability of the district.

The start of making the target both feel safe and be safe is the “safety plan.” Before we discuss what that is, we need to discuss the concept, and choice, of a “safe person.” Interestingly enough, both of these terms are used in many places, but it is almost impossible to find a definition of either.

I had a case with a fourth grade girl being bullied. After several meetings and emails, the Principal finally wrote a safety plan and designated Mr. H as the girl’s safe person.

I am sorry but Sarah does not find Mr. H to be safe.

Mr. H has taken the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, has a degree in psychology, is the Vice Principal and is Sarah’s safe person.

Again, Sarah does not find Mr. H to be a safe person.

I cannot believe anyone would call Mr. H unsafe. I find that offensive.

You don’t know what a safe person is, do you?

That is honestly how the conversation went. A safe person is someone with whom the student feels safe (and, yes, is safe). I did not reveal what the young girl said to me several times (“he is creepy”).

Finding a definition of “safe person” can be a bit daunting. Here is one very good one from the Massachusetts Department of Education (emphasis mine):

“Safe Person”: This is a designated person in the school who the student can talk to and process social situations that are troubling, confusing, or agitating, including bullying, that may not be readily understood by the student. This person should be familiar to the student and have a trusting relationship already established. This needs to be a person chosen with the student and parents who understands the student and can help him or her de-escalate a situation or calm down and resume the normal school day routine. This does not need to be a specialist or a teacher but can be a staff member who knows and understands this student and can help him or her interpret confusing situations. The Safe Person must be familiar with practices known to be helpful when working with students with disabilities that affect communication and social awareness. [3. MA DESE, Addressing the Needs of Students with Disabilities in the IEP and in School Bullying Prevention and Intervention Efforts.]

That definition is in a discussion of bullying dealing with students with disabilities, but except for the last sentence, it is applicable to all students. And as for the choice of a safe person, I have had students choose the custodian (more common among younger students), the nurse, a teacher, and a secretary. It makes sense.

I have never found a definition of a “safety plan.” This too should be self explanatory, but it is another place where the school may fail. Generally there are two parts of a safety plan, one part falls on the student (target) and the other on the school. Here is an extremely simple safety plan:

  1. Anytime the student feels unsafe, he may go directly to his safe person, designated as Ms. Smith.
  2. If Ms. Smith is not available, or by the student’s choice, the student may go to the main office and will be allowed to call his parents.
  3. The student and the aggressor will be kept apart as much as feasible. They will not be allowed to sit near each other in any class, nor during unstructured time (lunch, recess, etc.)
  4. All lunchroom, recess, library and transportation personnel will be aware that the two students are to be kept apart and will report any interactions to the principal immediately.

The plan will typically name the student by name. Usually there are other items such as a check in with a specific person, possibly after lunch, maybe a simple look or thumbs up between the student and teacher to signal that the student is feeling safe. There may be end-of-day checkouts with the safe person. Potentially there may be multiple safe people or the student may be allowed to leave all classes five minutes early so as not to be in crowded hallways, etc. Note that these amount to accommodations for the target’s safety. There need to be actions put in place for the aggressor. The target is NEVER to be “punished” by such actions as moving the target to another class. If the bullying is by aggressors in a gym class, for instance, the target will stay in that class, all the aggressors may be moved to another class.

I had a case where a young lady was bullied by a group of male students in middle school. Finally, at the end of the last year of that school, the Superintendent wrote a safety plan. He assured the family it would be fully in place at the high school; the plan had two safe people and many provisions.

The second week of high school the group of boys harassed and bullied the young lady in the cafeteria. She immediately implemented her part of the plan, she got up to leave to find her safe person. A cafeteria monitor followed the generic school rules and would not let the student leave the lunchroom. The student explained, to no avail. She was locked in a room with her aggressors. She retreated to the bathroom and from a stall, crying, called her father to come get her. He happens to be a mounted police officer.

It took the help of the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (the harassment had sexual overtones), but finally the district admitted that the high school was not fully aware of the existence of the plan, it was not properly implemented, and they settled the complaint, at great cost to them, in a manner where the young lady was never harassed again.

Most students will immediately offer the name of an appropriate safe person when asked. The concept is easy. A safety plan can, and should, be written and implemented in a day. In most cases we have one emailed to the family withing hours of a meeting with a principal or superintendent. It should not take that meeting to get a safety plan, but often does.

And again, the safety plan must make the student safe and make the student feel safe. In that order.

Please, read the bullying plan from your school district. It should be on the district web site. It may be in the student handbook. It may not exist. Find out. And if the mention of safety says the intent is to make the student feel safe or have a sense of safety, get it changed. Talk to the school committee if you must. Our students must be safe.

Do you want your child to feel safe or to be safe?

Next we will look at the investigation.

(The image associated with this post is that of my daughter … and her choice for safe people. Smart girl.)

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