Reports Of Bullying Up In State Schools; But Definition Varies Greatly
By DENISE BUFFA
May 25, 2012
Whenever there's publicity about bullying, Jo Ann Freiberg's phone rings off the hook in Hartford.
"Every time there is an article with 'bullying' in the headline, I can predict my phone will ring," said Freiberg, Connecticut's consultant for dealing with bullying in schools.
By last month, 217 bullying cases had been reported to Freiberg in this school year, an increase of 30 from last year. The documentary "Bully" was playing in select theaters by April.
"That is not something that's a secret," Freiberg said, "but it's more reflective about how much chatting there is about bullying than it is about schools being safe."
But she says everyone defines bullying differently and there's no sense in oversimplifying the issue.
Some parents call and complain that their child's been bullied because another student ripped his or her homework in half, said Freiberg, who holds a Ph.D.
"Everything comes in the door as bullying," Freiberg said. "Anything that happens, it all becomes bullying. So when everything is bullying, nothing is bullying."
In contrast, The Courant recently received an email from a Ledyard father who said that his daughter had tried to commit suicide with a drug overdose because, he learned later, she had been bullied at high school. He later declined to be interviewed in detail.
The Connecticut legislature passed a new anti-bullying law last year to help prevent teen suicide. The law, approved unanimously, expands staff training, makes all school employees mandated reporters of bullying, speeds school response, addresses cyber-bullying, and launches statewide school climate assessments, according to the General Assembly's Commission in Children.
Under the legislation, schools are obligated to report acts of bullying to the state starting next year.
The state has a lengthy definition of bullying, which includes the repeated use by one or more students of communication, gestures or physical acts directed at or referring to another student in the same district that causes physical or emotional harm, or the fear of such harm.
A question about the definition of bullying arose earlier this year, however, when a mother complained to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that her two teenagers were bullied and beaten badly at Berlin High School because they are Latino.
According to Berlin High School's Bullying and Prevention and Intervention Policy, part of the district's Safe School Climate Plan, which arose out of the new state law: "Bullying shall include, but not be limited to, a written, verbal or electronic communication or physical act or gesture based on any actual or perceived differentiating characteristics, such as race, color ... socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance..."
But school authorities didn't label the attacks on the teens as bullying. Instead, they maintained the culture at the school was positive.
"The problem is each district gets to determine what is bullying and what is not," Freiberg said.
William Howe, the state Department of Education's program manager for bullying, harassment and civil rights, said when the Berlin High School case came to light that complaints like those of the teens' family are not uncommon. Last month, he said he had gotten 15 similar complaints.
Sometimes educators call students' actions "mean behavior" because parents are more likely to admit that their kids acted in a mean way rather than admit they acted like bullies, according to Howe.
But he called that phrase "meaningless."
Howe also warned that behavior is sometimes mislabeled as bullying when it's actually a civil rights violation (as in the case of the four Asian girls who eat lunch in the teacher's room because they're too afraid to go to the cafeteria) or a criminal offense (as in the case of a girl who was being groped by a boy.)
Freiberg said she keeps a log of all the calls she gets. She noted that children who have been identified as having special needs are more likely to be involved in a bullying complaint.
Sometimes she hears from a parent who is disgruntled. She doesn't hear from parents who are satisfied with the way a district handled a bullying complaint.
"Sometimes, a parent will contact me before they contact the school," she said, "We are a resource. ... I turn them back and tell them we have no authority to do anything."
The state Department of Education couldn't immediately provide statistics about how many bullying complaints are coming out of each school district. But Freiberg said no district is more likely than any other to be the subject of a complaint.
For Freiberg, the latter phrase in her title school climate improvement is most important. Educators believe the key to preventing bullying is creating a safe learning environment. Connecticut is one of two states (the other is Wyoming) that have formally linked the problem of bullying with improving overall school climate.
"Universally, schools are doing everything they can to make every child safe and welcome and ready to learn," she insisted.
Howe said that the more students feel safe physically and emotionally, the more they will learn and, as a result, perform better on standardized tests. So the climate in a school needs to changed before any teaching in the classroom can take place, he said.
Every single person in a school, including the custodian and cafeteria worker, must treat the school community as family, Howe said.
"You don't let your family members get hurt," Howe said, "Bullies do what they do because they know they can get away with it."
Connecticut "the envy of the nation" is routinely getting calls from other states for guidance on the idea of building a good school environment to prevent bullying, according to Freiberg.
"We are making incredible progress. Connecticut is doing what ought to be done nationally," she added.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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