The Department of Justice has just released guidance to help schools examine and respond to the issue of school bullying. In light of Connecticut’s strong anti-bullying laws and its new requirements that schools implement proactive strategies and conduct annual in-service training for certified staff on the topic, administrators are encouraged to view in its entirety the recently released U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) guidance entitled “Bullying in Schools”. See www.cops.usdoj.gov.
The COPS guide is comprehensive and identifies and defines the problem of bullying in schools focusing on the extent of the problem, examines bullying behavior, incidents of bullying, characteristics of bullies, victims, chronic victims, consequences and also provides guidance to schools on how to assess its local problem, how to learn to ask the right questions, and offers suggestions for proactive strategies and suggestions for measuring the effectiveness of those strategies also citing strategies that are not effective. Administrators’ interest in the COPS guidance should be heightened by the reported conclusions that neither class or school size, or school setting, be it urban or suburban, has influence on the level of bullying, but that a school principal’s involvement helps to determine the level of bullying in a particular school.
The COPS guide cites bullying as the greatest problem affecting students’ sense of security in school and names it as perhaps the most underreported safety problem on American school campuses. Further, the COPS report reveals that while mistakenly thought as simply a rite of passage, or relatively harmless, or character building, bullying has long lasting harmful effects for victims and bullies; international research shows that bullies are more likely to develop criminal records than their peers, and victims suffer psychological harm long after bullying stops. The consequences of bullying to victims goes beyond embarrassment and include psychological and physical distress, frequent absenteeism, difficulty concentrating on school work, tendency to have low self esteem which can lead to depression and for those bullied more than one time per week, poorer health, frequent contemplation of suicide, depression and social dysfunction, anxiety and insomnia.
The COPS guide cites reluctance to report as the threshold problem involving bullying. Most students, including victims and witnesses, do not report bullying to adults, including parents and teachers, for a variety of reasons: fear of retaliation, not being believed, feeling shame, wanting to protect parents from worry, thinking worse to be thought of as a snitch, thinking a teacher’s advice would make the problem worse/no confidence that anything would change. One specific COPS recommended response to bullying is for schools to increase student reporting of bullying by using a bullying hot line or a bullying box. Other specific responses to bullying include: a whole school approach which needs re-newed efforts each year, developing activities in traditionally less-supervised areas, reducing the amount of time students can spend unsupervised, staggering recess, lunch or class release times, monitoring areas where bullying can be expected, assigning bullies to particular location or chores during release time and posting classroom signs prohibiting bullying and listing consequences (which must be consistently enforced).
If any conclusions can be drawn from COPS guidance, it is that bullying is widespread and the first step in confronting school bullying is gathering information about bullying generally and then accessing the unique characteristics of each school environment toward designing effective strategies for creating a positive school culture. If bullying is truly the number one issue impacting students’ sense of security in schools today as COPS reports, how can schools afford to ignore this issue? What is your school district doing to ensure a positive school culture in its schools on all levels?
Berchem, Moses & Devlin lawyers, in consultation with the State Department of Education, are available for in-service training in this most important area of education.