Your son or daughter is being tormented by a group of students at school. Snide comments, nasty rumors, “eye-rolling” have all become part of your child’s life. Your child has become increasingly depressed. Often, your child does not want to go to school.
When you discussed these concerns with the principal, you may have heard such comments as, “They are just joking.” “Your child is overreacting.” “Things like this happen. Your child needs to learn to deal with it.” “If your child would stop (describe behavior), this wouldn’t happen.” Or the principal may have punished the students being hurtful, but, predictably, this only made things worse for your child. Now your child is begging you not to contact the school.
Bullying Prevention is Not Working
What schools are doing to stop bullying isn’t working. It isn’t that most schools aren’t trying or don’t want to stop bullying. The problem is that what schools are doing is not effective.
In 2011, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more (U.S.Department of Justice). This rate has not significantly declined since 2005. Of this number, over 540,000 students say this happens “almost daily.”
The students who are most typically targeted are those who are obese, have a minority sexual orientation or identity, or have disabilities. Other students who also report bullying include racial, national origin, and religious minorities.
The Ineffective 20th Century Approach
The bullying prevention approach required by most state bullying prevention statutes requires rules against bullying, increased supervision, telling students to report, and punishing “the bully.” Schools are generally complying with these statutes. School staff think what they are doing is effective.
The problem is that the 20th Century “adult-centric,” approach will never be effective.
Most bullying is motivated by a desire to achieve social dominance among peers. The hurtful acts most often occur outside of adult presence, especially online. The majority of students do not report bullying–likely because the majority think school staff make things worse when they intervene. Unfortunately, the research backs up students’ perspective.
The common bullying prevention approach focuses on only one kind of student, socially marginalized students who face multiple risks. Punishment will not stop these students. They need a comprehensive system of support to address their multiple risk challenges.
Schools tend to ignore the hurtful acts of the “socially motivated,” hurtful students–the “social climbers” who are considered “popular.” These students are highly skilled in being hurtful, but behave appropriately in the presence of staff. They need to be held accountable in a manner that stops and remedies the harm.
Protecting Your Bullied Child or Teen
If your child or teen is being bullied or harassed and your school is not effectively responding to this situation, there are additional steps you can take.
You must know that civil rights laws provide protection for students against discriminatory harassment based on sex or gender expression, disabilities, and race and national origin. At the state level, religion is also generally protected. Also, under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, schools must address the concerns of students with disabilities who are either being or engaging in bullying through an Individual Educational Plan meeting. Unfortunately, if your child or teen does not fall into one of these groups, his or her legal protections are less stringent.
It is important to document what is happening in accord with these questions:
- Has your child or teen been the target of hurtful acts by another student or students? Describe the situations that have occurred.
- Have the hurtful acts been pervasive or persistent? Document the number of students (and possibly staff) involved and the frequency.
- As a result of these hurtful acts:
- Is your child or teen emotionally distressed? Document indicators of such distress. Obtain a letter from your pediatrician to back this up–very important.
- Has there been a significant interference in the ability of your child or teen to receive an education and/or participate in school activities? Document indicators of this interference.
If the answers to questions 1-3 are “yes,” then this constitutes bullying.
- Is your child or teen a member of, or perceived to be a member of, a protected class as defined by federal or state civil rights laws?
- Are the hurtful acts related to your child or teen’s membership, or perceived membership, in this protected class?
If the answers to questions 1-5 are “yes,” this constitutes discriminatory harassment, a violation of civil rights laws.
- Has this been reported to the school or have staff been present? Thoroughly document the response of school staff to such incidents, whether witnessed or reported, and the effectiveness or outcome of that response.
- Are there aspects of the school climate that appear to be reinforcing the disparagement and harassment of students? Identify and document such concerns.
Present this documentation to your principal, but if he or she is not effectively responsive, take this up the chain of authority. This chain includes:
- The district safe schools coordinator, and the civil rights compliance officer (if civil rights are implicated) and the special education director (if your child is on an IEP or 504).
- The same staffing at your state department of education. State departments also provide the ability to file a civil rights or special education complaint.
- The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
When seeking to resolve these situations, do not push for a suspension of the hurtful students. Insist that any social, emotional challenges faced by a student being hurtful be effectively addressed. Insist that hurtful students be held accountable in a restorative manner that stops the hurtful acts and remedies the harm to your child. Also focus on how you can help your child become more resilient.
Most importantly, insist that your school focus attention on the quality of the school climate and the social, emotional, and cultural competencies of the students. Addressing the culture of bias that fuels these hurtful acts is the best long term solution.