Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bullying and the School’s Responsibility

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from bullies, and it is natural for parents to want their children’s school to address bullying when it happens. But what can schools really do about bullying, and what can parents do to help the schools help them?

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, discusses what is and what is not in the scope of responsibility of schools in a blog post on his website. He explains that students have freedom of speech at school just like they do outside of school. What is problematic is when that freedom of speech turns ugly against our children. We as parents want the school to make it stop. But what can the school do specifically? Schools are allowed to restrict students’ speech and discipline behavior at school in order to maintain an appropriate learning environment, but if a school is going to intervene in something that occurred off campus (like on Facebook or via text message or email), that speech or behavior has to present itself as causing or likely causing a significant disruption of the learning environment. Regardless, the school can do certain things like call parents, talk to students involved, or even impose extra-curricular sanctions.

What does all this mean in terms of help a parent can expect from the school? The first thing to keep in mind if your child is being bullied is that the school really does want to help but may be limited in the action it can take. The next thing to do is tough – keep your emotions under control. This is difficult because it is instinctual for a parent to protect his/her child from harm, but in order to accomplish things quickly and effectively, the parent needs to be calm and rational when coming to the school for help.

According to the principal and dean of students at the junior high where I teach as well as a tip sheet published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the most important thing is to keep evidence. If cyberbullying is occurring, it is imperative to save and print out copies of emails, web pages, and pictures. Keep copies of text messages – they can even be forwarded from the child’s phone to the parent’s phone. It is also helpful to type out the date, time, and text of text messages, but don’t delete the actual texts themselves! Don’t delete any voice mails, either. Learn more about keeping digital evidence here. If the bullying is taking place in person, keep a log of bullying incidents. Have your child explain when and where the bullying took place, who was involved, who else was there as, what was said or done, and how the incident finally ended. Keeping a log like this can establish of pattern of behavior and may offer other insights, like the most common places or times the bullying is happening.

It is also important to keep lines of communication open with the school. As a teacher, I appreciate when a parent tells me of conflict involving his/her child and another student in my class. This allows me to keep a close eye on the students and avoid potential problem situations like having the students work as partners. Let the school know how the situation is progressing – have things improved or gotten worse?

If the bullying turns violent or threatening, or the bullying cannot be disciplined through the school, don’t hesitate to contact local law enforcement. They will need the same kinds of evidence.

Don’t be afraid to step in and help your child if he/she is being bullied, and don’t be afraid to involve the proper authorities and notify your child’s school. Most bullying situations don’t resolve themselves; they require adult intervention.

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