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CSTP--Staff | December 8, 2009

Joint Blog: Legislator & SFS Blogger Discuss School Bullying & Harrassment

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By Representative Marko Liias Untitled1

We can all remember classic sitcoms about American families.  In every one, there is at least one episode about a bully.  I can still remember the Brady Bunch episode where poor little Cindy is teased by the mean bully, Buddy Hinton.  Like all sitcoms, there is conflict, but everything works out and always a happy ending.

In the 21st Century, we understand that school bullying and harassment is much different than these classic images.  Fights are no longer about lunch money, they are about the very basic characteristics of our students, and today’s bullies use the powerful tools of technology to harass and intimidate their victims 24 hours a day.

And the impacts of this behavior are devastating.  Victims of school bullying and harassment struggle to perform in the classroom, and fall behind their classmates.  Many face emotional and psychological stress that turn into on-going mental health challenges.  In the most extreme cases, these victims try to take their own lives, and a few succeed.

Simply put, we’re not doing enough to prevent bullying and harassment in our schools.

What’s not simple is how to confront the problems our kids are experiencing in classrooms and hallways across the state.  Society is failing both the bully and the victim by allowing violence and harassment to interfere with their education. 

In the state Legislature, I’ve been working to strengthen our laws to protect students from bullying, harassment and intimidation in our schools.  I will be pushing for action when the legislative session begins January 11.

The need for action on bullying and harassment

If you’re having an emergency, you call 911 and they respond with an appropriate level of action.  In a sense that is the standard I want for every school in our state.

Right now every school district has a general policy on school bullying and harassment.  What isn’t required is a clear and specific plan for how to respond to bullying.  That’s not to say schools aren’t responding and some are doing a great job.  I know our schools are constantly doing incredible things with limited resources. 

With a problem like bullying and harassment, I believe that general policies at the school district level are not enough, every school and district should have a clear and specific plan of action.  When a child is bullied, harassed or intimidated, and a parent calls “911” – their school – they should expect that action will be taken and the behavior will stop.

Steps forward to safer schools

Asking our schools to create clear and specific plans is just the first step.  We need to change the climate in our schools, and that will take time and investment.

Bullying is a complicated issue and when it comes to changing the attitudes of students and school personnel, we have a lot of conversations that need to take place first.  Using legislative action to pull together a workgroup will allow us to study the causes, look at how we’re responding, and what the broader implications of bullying and harassment are to our schools.  The ideas and insight out there are promising, but we need a formal conversation to make sure that when we move forward, it’s the right path.

At the end of the day, Cindy Brady had loving parents and a brave older brother that helped her survive her bully.  Students today are looking to all of us to stand up for them and keep our schools safe.

For more information, the state’s Office of the Education Ombudsman has a great online resource on school bullying and harassment, in several languages.

Rep. Liias represents the 21st Legislative District and is a member of the House Education Committee.

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By Tom

First of all, I truly appreciate the fact that bullying in schools is an issue that's being treated with serious consideration by our state legislature. Simply put, students who are bullied don't feel safe; and when someone doesn't feel safe, learning is out of the question.

I would like to respond to his call to action with a case study of a school that had a serious bullying problem and dealt with it systematically and effectively: my school.

Not long ago, bullying was a significant threat to the security and learning at my school. It was one of the biggest complaints we heard from our students and their parents. We were embarrassed by the scope of the problem.

Representative Liias is right when he says that schools need a clear and specific plan to deal with bullying. That was exactly what we needed.

So we made one. It took time, it took energy and it took resources. It began with research. And after a lot of it, we settled upon the Olweus Bullying Prevention program. Originally developed in Norway, it's run in the U.S. out of Clemson University.

The first thing we did was send some of our staff out to get trained. They came back and trained the rest of us. It wasn't too complicated, but it was very effective. We learned what bullying is and what it isn't. We learned about the myths that surround the issue. And we learned that there are specific actions that staff and students can do to prevent bullying.

After we got the staff properly trained, we turned our attention to the students. We proceeded with the following steps:

  1. We had whole school assemblies to teach our students exactly what bullying is, and what it isn't.
  2. We surveyed our students and their parents to find out the extent, the nature and the exact locations of bullying in our school.
  3. We began regular meetings in each classroom designed to have students discuss any bullying situations that arose over the past week. Teachers were taught how to confront the bullies in their own classrooms when their names came up in the class meetings.
  4. We also taught our students how to act when they see bullying at school. They learned that group dynamics play a huge role in either escalating or de-escalating a bullying situation.
  5. We educated our parents about how to help their children properly deal with bullying, in a way that is non-violent, yet effective.
  6. We emphasized our focus on ending bullying with an anti-bullying pledge, recited by the student body three mornings a week.

It was a serious undertaking. A lot of work. And since we get a lot of turnover at our school, it's something we have to undertake all over again every September.

But it's paid off. Like Rep. Liias mentioned, to combat bullying you need to change the climate of the school. And that's what we did. Do we still get bullying? Of course. But now we have a student body, a staff and a parent community with the capacity and the vocabulary to deal with it. 

Our students might not have Greg Brady to help them, but they've got something better: A community. A community that knows what bullying is and how to stop it.

Comments

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Andy James

Thank you, Mark, for your comments about teachers who bully. As you say, those teachers shouldn't be allowed to be near kids. Unfortunately one of teachers involved in the case I referenced is currently teaching and coaching wrestling today. The district who hired him was aware of his behavior but hired him anyway. He has never received any counseling about his behavior as none was required when he was sanctioned by OSPI. That's one of the problems that hasn't been addressed. I have made it my business to let the superintendent of that district know that I am fully aware of this man's past and expect the superintendent to be on the lookout for any future objectionable behavior on the teacher's part. In addition, this superintendent has never apprised his board of directors of this man's past. If our superintendent kept this information from me as a board member, he or she would be looking for a new job.

Kristin, you're right. Too often adults are guilty of not stopping the bullying. Every bully prevention program in existence stresses the importance of students who witness bullying telling a responsible adult so that the behavior can be confronted. When adults don't take positive action, the kids learn that adults can't be trusted. I have been highly critical of school directors for failing to confront adults, especially teachers who bully. We expect kids to be brave enough to take action when they know a student is being bullied. So how cowardly is it for school boards to avoided confronting bullying teachers? It's disgraceful.

Which brings me to Mark's comments about bullies not necessarily being bad kids. You're right on the mark (no pun intended). It's also true that the teachers who indecently exposed the wrestlers had no idea that what they were doing was potentially dangerous to the kids. We MUST train the adults in our public school that any sexual humiliation can be extremely dangerous and that the impact of such behavior can adversely affect a child for the rest of his or her life. We MUST demand that they refrain from any such behavior. If they don't, we MUST get them out of the system.

So, Representative Liias, this is where you can help. I am working with Representative Shelly Short (7th dist.) to present a bill this session that would make the indecent exposure of a child, 18 years or younger, by an adult a felony on the first offense. To do this, we will be proposing an amendment to RCW 9A.88.010, Indecent Exposure. If passed, this would result in forcing the certificate revocation of a teacher who commits the act against a student due to passage of HB 1741 last session which makes a felony conviction under the Indecent Exposure statute a mandated revocation offense. I will be asking for your support if we can get this bill in front of the legislature. You can contact me at [email protected]

I do, Mark, and I do it in the context of the child's perception of the situation. I always do it in private, face to face, and I might start the conversation with, "______was pretty upset today at lunch. She felt like..." I don't see this as triangulating, because we are the grownups and a child doesn't always have the power or the skills to speak up for her self. And I don't ask permission of the child, either, because then they feel they've somehow asked for my interventon. If we're going to expect empathy and resect from the kids, we should expect it from each other.

Obvious adult-to-student bullying as Andy describes must be stopped. Those teachers should never be allowed to be near a kid again. I have a colleague who has caused students to come to me in tears because of how rude this teacher is to them. It's not bullying per se, but I see no reason to be persistently rude to a kid (stern talks are different than rudeness). I haven't yet figured out the right way to handle that kind of situation. I didn't witness it. I always counsel the kids to go to the associate principal, and I offer to go with them if they aren't comfortable. They don't, so should I? Is it my place to confront the teacher over hearsay?

Adults are a huge part of this, not only as perpetrators (as Andy points out) but as bystanders. When kids see adults speaking out and interfering on behalf of the victim, and when kids know there are real consequences for bullying, it stops.

As well, there needs to be funding to provide support services to the bullies. My siblings and I were chased home every day by the neighborhood bully, who threw rocks at us. We had no idea he was being abused at home, but he was. If someone had taken care of him, I don't think he would have felt the need to victimize others.

Great post, Marko and Tom. This is an issue that will never go away, and one that requires constant vigilance.

Andy James

First of all, let me mention that I have been a school director for the Onion Creek School Board for 18 years and sit on the WSSDA Board of Directors.

My concern is with bullying-type behavior that is committed by adults in the school system, especially teachers who are coaches or advisers of interscholastic activities. Though less frequent in occurrence, they are far more devastating in consequence for students.

I took up this cause about 8 years ago when a couple of wrestling coaches who were also certificated teachers stripped five athletes in a hotel room as "punishment" for breaking a curfew during an out-of-town meet. OSPI investigated the incident, determined that it occurred and handed out mere,one-year suspensions of their certificates. The suspensions were then stayed. This same behavior when committed against prison inmates in Montana can result in felony criminal convictions. This behavior by police who strip-search drug suspects without a warrant is a violation of the drug suspect's civil rights and can result in multi-million dollar civil lawsuits. It is also a violation of federal law when committed against prisoners of war. Yet when done to students by teachers in our public schools, the outcome is little more than a verbal reprimand.

I've been working with the Office of Professional Practices, OSPI for the past 8 years, trying to find a way to ensure that, at a minimum, teachers who do this to students lose their teaching certificate. A month ago I met with Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, and received his assurances that certificate revocation would be at least attempted in the future when this offense if found to have occurred.

If we're unwilling to stand up to adults in our schools who bully and assault students, how can we expect to deal with student-on-student bullying?

I'm hoping others will join me in my efforts to address this unaddressed area of bullying. I hope others will comment.

I think we should all reread Lord of the Flies to remind us of why we should stand in the hall during passing time. One of the unspoken objectives of education is to civilize our children.
I was bullied when I was in middle school. I am getting old, but I remember everything he did to me. If I can stop one bad thing from happening to one of my students, it's a good day.
Thanks Marko and Tom.

The point about teaching kids what bullying is and is not is also important. I've been working with a young man recently (we've spend a lot of time together in the hallway when I've had to kick him out of class) who I think genuinely does not understand that his behavior is bullying. My guess is that it is the same behavior that is modeled at home, so he thinks it's just how people are supposed to interact, and he's only gotten in trouble for it but perhaps hasn't been mature enough yet to understand why he's getting in trouble. Now we just have a code phrase. When I see him misbehaving, I just say "this is what we talked about in the hallway" and every single time he has immediately adjusted his behavior. Bullies are not necessarily bad kids...they may just be imitating what they've seen, and since they haven't been shown anything otherwise, they assume that what they are imitating is appropriate behavior.

You're right, Mark; bullying takes on more sophisticated forms as the students age. We've also found that girls are just as vicious as the boys, except they tend to use less physical violence in favor of tactics such as gossip and exclusion. I haven't hear anything about Chalenge Day, but I hope it works.

One of the problems with bullying is that as the kids get older, the bullies become much better at camouflaging their bullying from adults. Our high school's dean of students and some of the school ASB leaders have managed to bring the "Challenge Day" curriculum to our high school for this coming March. I am intrigued to see what kinds of ripple effects this experience will have to curb bullying and intimidation in our building.

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