Federal officials aim to prevent bullying

Parry Aftab, a lawyer with a specialty in cyberlaw and cyber bullying and creator of WiredSafety.org, asked Ali how civil rights could affect cyber bullying.

“While we wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on school involvement in cyber bullying, perhaps the OCR could intervene,” said Aftab.

Aftab gave the example of a student posting a KKK web site link on a black student’s Facebook page.

In response, Ali told Aftab that the OCR has no answer on this issue at this time, but is working on the complicated issue of balancing First Amendment rights and state policies.

Another question posed by an attendee addressed bullying on the basis of religion.

“Sex, race, and disability statutes are great, but are there any laws the OCR uphold that deal with religion or assumed religion?” the attendee asked.

The attendee represented what he said was New York City’s Sikh community, which, since 9/11, has been the target of hate crimes and bullying.

“So many students in schools, whether they’re Middle Eastern or not, are bullied. What can the OCR do for them?” he asked.

Ali said that while religion is not covered under Title VI, the OCR is working with the DOJ to find a solution.

What schools are doing now

Although the DOJ and OCR are focusing their efforts to help schools and students with bullying, schools are ultimately responsible for the issue.

From a school perspective, Jim Dillon, educational consultant and former elementary school principal for 17 years, said the easiest way to combat bullying is to get the facts out to the community.

“For example, what is bullying? What are its effects, the role of the bystander, and the difference between bullying and conflict?” he said.

According to Dillon, education leaders must ask for help and be open to ideas, use the energy of parents to help with efforts, replace cynicism with hope, and be the change they want to see.

From a district perspective, Jack Barnes, superintendent for Sullivan County Schools (SCS) in Tennessee, said his district was recently under a DOJ Consent Decree for peer-on-peer racial harassment, meaning that a federal lawsuit was filed by a student under Title VI.

As a result of this decree, SCS had everyone in the district undergo racism and anti-harassment training, developed new policies and infrastructure, required school climate assessment and data analysis, and developed student leadership and mentoring teams.

“We found that involving kids in the process is the best solution,” said Barnes. “The school climate occurs when adults are not around and students can see, hear, and understand school climate issues in ways adults cannot. Diverse student leadership teams are the key to success.”

SCS’ student leadership process happens in five stages:

  1. An adult team forms and meets to select members of a student leadership team.
  2. Students collect school climate data based on surveys.
  3. Student leaders and adults set school climate improvement goals.
  4. Student leaders and adults develop and implement action projects.
  5. Formative assessment occurs; leaders work to ensure systemic changes and sustainability.

Thanks to the hard work of every member of SCS, the decree was lifted by the DOJ and two-thirds of SCS students showed significant improvement in school climate.

Also, every school developed School Improvement Plans that linked school climate to academic goals.

Academic achievement also improved significantly, as measured by improvement in Tennessee state test scores in those schools that showed improvement in school climate.

From a state perspective, Amy Williamson, education program consultant at the Iowa Department of Education, said Iowa has a Safe School Law, which became part of the Iowa Code in 2007.

Meris Stansbury

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