Bullying is a problem that no parent or child wants to deal with, but many are.
Despite efforts on many levels to stop the harassment that often begins at a very early age, when Patch talked to kids, parents and school officials, we were hard pressed to find someone who hasn't either dealt with the issue personally or seen it take place. All agreed that an even bigger issue is that it's a hard problem to solve because the behavior begins at an early age and it's normally done when adults aren't around.
The issue is so big that students, parents, and teachers addressed the issue Thursday at the White House during a conference on bullying prevention.
Meanwhile, Town and Country Republican State Representative Sue Allen also admits it's a difficult issue, and she's already taking steps here at home that she hopes will help.
The Missouri House of Representatives is working to tighten current legislation on bullying in schools. Two recently proposed bills, House Bill 273 sponsored by Allen and House Bill 460 sponsored by Rep. Sara Lampe, a Democrat representing Springfield, are aimed at helping Missouri schools address the issue.
"It still happens, and it probably always will happen, but some kids fall through the cracks, so it needs to be tightened up," Allen said of the legislation she is sponsoring. "No one should be bullied, period. It's about helping to make every child safer."
Allen said her bill addresses all bullying and integrates "cyberbullying" into the legislation as another type of bullying. The goal is to make it clear to students, parents and school staff what is considered bullying and how to handle it, Allen told Patch.
House Bill 273 requires public schools to do the following:
- Post the district's bullying policy in a public space.
- Provide teacher, student and parental education on bullying.
- Have reporting procedures in place for instances of bullying.
- Have a procedure in place to investigate reports of bullying.
The bill does not tell districts what the policies must say, only that they must have policies in place. The goal is to empower schools to create their own procedures and policies and give them the power to do that with the backing of state law behind them, Allen said.
Allen tells Patch she also wants schools to begin addressing the issue of bullying with children at a young age.
"If you start talking to kiddos about bullying in junior high, you probably blew it. You need to start at a young age," Allen said. She doesn't have a specific age in mind, but has heard that third and fourth grade might be appropriate.
It's a plan that both the Parkway School District supports.
Parkway School District Coordinator of Counseling Julie Harrison tells Patch that bullying starts at a young age.
"The bullying and harm to the kids is actually happening really, really young," Harrison said. "I have heard kids say, 'You cannot get in this line because your skin is too dark.' "
Harrison said in first and second grade she's already seeing kids excluding each other and forming cliques.
Parkway does have a districtwide bullying policy and its formal bullying program starts in fourth grade. Harrison tells Patch that staff is already seeing "hierarchies" forming at that age. However, she points out that the district really starts to address the issue in its preschool by teaching kids to be advocates for themselves and to help others.
Harrison said each year parents receive a student handbook that includes the district's bullying policy, plus the individual schools address the issue with students annually and send them home with additional info. The district's bullying policy can also be found on the district's website.
Allen said she wants that policy explained each year to parents, students and school staff so it is clear what the policy is and how to handle incidents of bullying. Her plan is to educate the bully and the victim.
"We want the school to be responsible for letting parents know about its bullying policy," Allen said. "So no one can ever say, 'I was never told.'"
The district supports that idea.
"We just need to have everybody understand what it means," Harrison said.
Harrison said that point is key and many school districts began taking steps to evaluate and clarify their policies even before Allen proposed House Bill 273.
Harrison explained that last year the federal government said it would start to look at some instances of bullying when they involve race or sexual orientation as civil rights issues. She said the government even threatened to pull funding from districts as a consequence if they did not buckle down on bullying and protect students.
"It's really huge, because the federal government doesn't really get involved with bullying. It's usually a state thing," Harrison said.
This measure, combined with recent incidents of cyberbullying, has brought the issue of bullying to the forefront of many districts.
"Everybody is really cracking down. Not only on the definitions, but the policies in place," Harrison said. She said districts are including specifics such as racial slurs, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability, teasing and gestures. Harrison said Parkway began reviewing its bullying policy last year to make sure it included cyber bullying.
"I think that's really important, because a lot of bullying we see now is not happening at school. Our biggest problem now is cyberbullying like texting, Internet sites and gaming systems like XBox 360 and others, where kids can connect through the Internet through the gaming system," Harrison said. "Parents think they're just playing a game, and they're actually connected online, bullying other kids playing that game."
Parkway's Director of Communication and School Climate and Bullying Task Force co-chair Paul Tandy said the task force learned a lot from the study, including the following:
- The district needed to better clarify where bullying is occurring—which bus, hallway, playground, etc.
- How to promote a better climate among students and make students understand their expected behavior.
"We also know if kids don't come to school feeling safe and welcome, the chances of success are diminished," Tandy said.
As a result of the study, the task force made a number of recommendations for the district, including the following:
- Districtwide recommendations for standards of behavior for parents, students and staff.
- Beefing up the reporting system because too many students reported in the survey that they would not tell if they were bullied.
"I think those are good ideas, I really do," Tandy told Patch. "It takes time to educate everyone. The first people you have to educate is the staff."
Tandy said each year the goals are reviewed by the individual Parkway schools as part of their Annual School Improvement Plan, but ultimately, the district would like to have the review done on a districtwide level.
Allen points out that although the bill puts many requirements on schools, it's aimed at holding parents and students responsible.
"My bill does still make parents responsible for what their kids, for what the bullies do. It doesn't make the school responsible," Allen said.
House Bill 273 has been referred to the state education committee, but has not been reviewed and there is no date set for it to be reviewed. Allen said she hopes to have the bill in place for the 2011-2012 school year.
Allen said as the bill was created she took into account research provided to her by the St. Louis Junior League and insight from Tina Meier, whose daughter Megan was reportedly bullied online before committing suicide in Oct. 2006.
More information on Parkway's School Climate and Bullying Task Force findings.
- Page 44 lists other related policies that mention bullying/school climate (ex: student discipline).
- Page 12 provides a bulleted summary of the task force's policy-related recommendations.
Recent updates to the Parkway School District's bullying policy can also be found online