How accountable are schools for bullying?
This question keeps coming up and frankly, it’s haunting me. It came up at a recent speech I was giving at a school on the topic of bullying (“7 Steps to Eliminating Bullying: an Inside Out Approach”); it came up in a discussion on Facebook with several parents who have lost kids to bullycide; it comes up again and again: how do we hold schools accountable for bullying that occurs?
Sadly, there’s no easy answer. The challenge is that this is another part of the “cultural” aspect of bullying I’ve written about previously. See, we assume that “bullying” takes place between the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s) only, but the reality is that the culture of the school enables it to occur and enables it to continue.
What role, then, does the school play in being effective in ending bullying…or, conversely, allowing it to continue?
Now, understand that this is not intended to be a wholesale condemnation of schools’ efforts to curb the bullying epidemic. There are many, many schools and districts out there that take this problem seriously and work actively to solve the problem. But there are also many — too many — that don’t. And, that’s not acceptable.
Most states in this country have laws on the books that require schools to have an anti-bullying policy, program, or other measures in their school intended to address the problem. However, there’s nothing that really indicates whether those programs or policies have to be proven to work. I’ve heard of students report that their school has posters up on all the hallways telling students that bullying is wrong, but that’s the extent of the “program.” Or, they do an assembly once a year about how to recognize bullying and what adults to report it to when it occurs; again, that’s it. The rah-rah is over, and life goes back to normal.
But that’s not even the worst of it. There are schools that, even when their own anti-bullying policies are violated, do not follow-through on the steps they’ve established. They may preach “zero tolerance,” but a student that has been caught bullying receives nothing worse than a lecture in the principal’s office and he/she is back “on the street” the next day. Or, as I’ve heard from some of the parents whose children have become fatal statistics, school administrators or officials have consistently and repeated turned a blind eye toward what was happening under their noses.
To me, that is the most criminal conduct of all. But it’s very hard to prove, and who is there to police it anyway? We have over 16,000 public school districts in this country; if the schools themselves aren’t willing to take the matter seriously and ensure that their efforts are effective, dependable and properly implemented, who is going to monitor that from the outside?
Look, we’re all fallible human beings, and we all make mistakes or miss things. I’m not talking about those accidental cases or unfortunate oversights. What troubles me is the repeated and seemingly willful disregard to what is going on in certain schools, with certain students. Again, I believe that most schools — teachers, administrators, staff — have the well-being and safety of our children at heart. It pains me, then, when parents — even in what seem to be GREAT schools — say, “We’ve reported the problem over and over again..but nothing ever gets done.”
Maybe we need to look at those policies we are expecting our schools to implement, to make sure that they are not only sound and reasonable, but are enforced. Theoretically the school districts should be overseeing this, but perhaps we need to enlist the help of those people who have the keenest interest in the children’s security — the parents — to work as part of a joint committee at the school or district level. This joint effort would require open dialog, something that can be a challenge at times, and honest sharing of information. But when you consider that more than 160,000 students miss school everyday because of fear of bullying, that’s a huge financial burden alone on schools, not to mention the “ancillary” effects on academics, reputation, and morale.
We need this partnership — parents and schools have the same common goal. I don’t know when the divisiveness of “us vs. them” started, but I do know that it’s not helpful and it’s not healthy. Maybe it’s the kids that should hold all of us adults accountable because we are letting them down.