Lawsuits based upon bullying and harassment is rapidly rising to one of the most challenging legal issues facing schools during the course of a school year. Whether the final verdict is in favor or against the defendants, oftentimes both school districts and personnel all lose. Personal and professional reputations are tarnished, large sums of taxpayer dollars are diverted directly and indirectly from education, and strained parent/school relationships are further damaged.
While some lawsuits are inevitable, many need not occur. School administrators should utilize a variety of strategies to lessen the likelihood that parents will seek relief in a court of law, and if civil action does occur, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs will be diminished. The following strategies may not only have the aforementioned legal protection benefits, but, if utilized, should help reduce victimization and create a safer and more productive school climate for students and staff.
Establish and Promote Reporting Procedures
Many states have enacted statutes to regulate reporting processes including mandating specific data entry forms. Regardless, reporting procedures should be provided to staff, students, and parents through a variety of venues. All stakeholders should be encouraged to report an incident if they see or are aware of a student being physically, verbally or electronically abused. Parent and student reporting forms should be available in a variety of locations within a school building as well as accessible on the school or district website and within a parent/student handbook. Directions for accessing and submitting complaints should be included.
In addition to the more traditional means for reporting the behavior, an anonymous method should be established and advertised. School staff must remember that not all bystanders are willing to be directly involved. While the creation of an anonymous system may result in some reports containing inaccuracies or that do not rise to the definition of bullying, the positive results outweigh the negatives in terms of prevention and intervention.
Train All Staff
Everyone, including support staff, has a vested interest in reducing harassment and other behaviors that constitute bullying. Transportation, food service, secretarial, and custodial staff have regular contact with students, and they can provide important information related to where and when these incidents occur as well as the names of individuals involved. Students do not differentiate between the adults’ job responsibilities at the school when bullying occurs. They only see an adult in proximity, and they expect all school staff to respond.
As part of the training, all employees should receive a copy of Board Policy as well as any requirements for reporting the behavior based upon state law. Training should be thoroughly documented with records of attendance, handouts, and agendas. Attendance records should include a place for all employees to check that they were present and received and understood the handouts provided and were given the opportunity to ask questions.
Remind staff that when a bully-victim relationship is suspected, the use of conflict resolution and peer mediation strategies are counter productive and may result in further victimization and trauma to the child being bullied.
Include information to teachers at all grade levels concerning the warning signs of students that may be contemplating self-harm as a response to victimization. At the first sign of these indications, parents and other adults trained in suicide prevention should be notified.
Student education is an important part of any conversation related to bullying and harassment reduction. While bullying prevention programs are popular at the elementary level, a serious discussion related to social responsibility may be more effective with secondary students. Inquire of students what they believe their social responsibilities include when they observe classmates being picked on, teased or humiliated. Ask them how new students are or should be treated and how they can assist new classmates in acclimating to the school. Ask how others respond after witnessing an incident of bullying or harassment. These questions are designed to elicit a deeper discussion related to the overall goal of bullying reduction. If the school uses committees to help steer bullying prevention efforts, students should be included in membership.
Teach all students the importance of reporting the behavior. While not all will be comfortable directly intervening, ask students to remove themselves from the situation and report what was seen to a trusted adult at school, at home, or both. As many bullies are motivated by the need to “perform,” bystanders become the audience and should be taught appropriate responses.
Encourage student groups and organizations to become actively involved. Recommend student journalists do a feature story using multi-media or print journalism. Ask drama students to film a series of public service announcements for elementary, middle, and high school audiences. With each venue of information, students will become more aware of the problem and how to appropriately respond when necessary.
When speaking with parents, help them understand that not all bullying can be eliminated, but that it can be reduced. Promise parents that school personnel will take all reports seriously and will investigate as quickly as possible. Explain that if a report of bullying is substantiated, a plan for intervention will be developed. Make certain parents understand the investigatory process, so they can be realistic related to timelines and expectations.
Explain what constitutes bullying. Not all harassing behaviors rise to the level of or meet the definition of bullying, but all inappropriate behavior will addressed according to the school’s code of conduct.
Provide parents a listing of resources both within and outside the school that can be accessed. Help parents develop response strategies that work in conjunction with the school’s efforts. These include not encouraging the child to resort to physical confrontation with the bully, helping the child develop appropriate verbal responses to taunts and insults, and continuing to report to school officials, and law enforcement officials if appropriate, when victimization occurs.
Investigate All Complaints
School personnel should develop and utilize a written investigative process for reviewing complaints related to bullying and harassment. These procedures should include parent notification requirements with suggested timelines for such, and offering strategies related to preventing retaliation. Document all investigative contacts including communication with the parents of both the victim and bully.
It is important to always investigate the incident from the perspective of how it is reported. Some states have laws directing a prescriptive investigative process based on how the behavior is perceived by the victim and/or parent. If the behavior is not bullying, the facts will indicate such and at that time the incident can be categorized differently.
Use Written Supervision Plans
Strategic supervision is the number one strategy for reducing bullying behaviors. With that in mind, written plans for supervision should be developed for areas of high risk such as locker rooms, student commons areas, lunchrooms and hallways. A supervision plan for a cafeteria might include the following: general staff assignments for monitoring and addressing student behavior; paying particular attention to students eating alone and watching for social exclusion, and notations concerning specific students that may be suspected of being victimized or engaging in bullying behaviors.
Supervision plans should be reviewed at least annually if not more often, taking into account current survey data from staff and students, discipline data related to bullying and harassment, and anecdotal information gleaned from discussion with all staff.
A school’s bullying prevention and reduction efforts should start with anonymous surveys of staff, parents, and students. Student surveys are especially beneficial for determining at what locations students see the bullying occurring, how the behavior is being inflicted, and how students perceive the staff response.
Educating all staff should begin with a discussion of survey results. Survey results serve an important role in developing supervision plans. While some data may be suspect from surveys, responses will still give school personnel a general idea as to how prevalent the behavior is as well as the degree to which students believe it is occurring. Surveys should provide ‘comment’ space for students to convey thoughts and feelings.
While the courts are still generally education friendly and a number of court cases are decided in the favor of schools, judges and juries may look for evidence that school staff used best practices in preventing and responding to bullying behaviors. Courts want to see that schools and individual staff are not being ‘deliberately indifferent’ in their responses. When these practices are not evident, courts may be far more inclined to not give the school the benefit of the doubt and an unfavorable ruling may result. The expectations for school personnel have never been greater for reducing bullying and protecting the victim. Use best practices to protect yourself, the organization, and the staff.