Most of us are probably unaware of how to use recently-enacted laws and mandated policies and procedures that protect our children from bullies at school and, as such, we fail to utilize all of the tools in our toolbox.  We can and should enlist our schools help in ending bullying in our schools.

When your child tells you that he is being bullied at school, what do you do?  Maybe you counsel your child on how to react, maybe we even say, “ignore the bully and the bully will go away” (even though we know that is ineffective).  Lots of guidance helps parents walk through a series of actions to help their child deal with the bullying.

But maybe your child doesn’t tell you she’s being bullied at school, fearing your reaction…that perhaps you’ll go to the school and end up making her more miserable than she is already.  Maybe you learn of the bullying long after it started, when it has begun to take a toll on your child’s health or schoolwork.

Maybe we call a teacher and ask for help.  Maybe we even send an e-mail, hoping that whomever we contact will do whatever is necessary to protect our child from being bullied.  And maybe, just maybe, that might be enough.

Sometimes that’s just not enough.  Maybe our child simply cannot handle the situation at school on his own. Most fact sheets and bullying resources stop short of telling you how to deal with relentless and uncontrolled bullying, the kind of bullying that rises to the level of “harassment”…the kind that even schools seem powerless to deal with.

Because our children are in school most of the daylight hours, the task of protecting our children from bullies falls to school personnel.  Many of us believe that teachers and other school personnel will “do the right thing” by our children when it comes to bullies.  And many of these people do rise to the occasion. But sometimes even they are not aware of what the bullies are doing in the hallways and classrooms of our schools.

Our children and our teachers are not powerless to deal with the bullies at school.  Nor are we.  The legislature and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) gave us some useful tools to report bullying and provide protection for our children at school.

What the Law Says About Bullying at School - The Required Policy

The Alabama legislature passed the Student Harassment Prevention Act in 2009, outlining clear actions for students and schools to take in addressing harassment that happens on-campus and at school-related functions.  [Note this is NOT applicable to cyberbullying.  Cyberbullying is usually dealt with by police departments, not school officials.]  While additional protections have been proposed through additional legislation, none have yet been enacted.  [Here’s a comparison of cyberbullying laws across the United States.]

The 2009 Act specified that each school district must develop a policy to deal with bullying and further, that the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) would provide a model policy.  Districts had until July 1, 2010 to adopt their own policy.  They were allowed to use their own wording as long as the elements of the Act were part of their language.

What the Law Says – The Required Reporting Form to be Used by Students and Families

In addition to the policy, school districts were required to create a written form for students and others to use to report harassment.  This form is to be available in guidance  counselor’s and principal’s offices, at the very least.  The Act suggests making the form available on the school district’s web site, but stops short of mandating it.

The sad part is that many parents and students don’t know that the form even exists.  Nor do they understand the importance of completing the form in order to successfully combat a bully at school.

Here’s a form that the ALSDE posts as a model complaint form.

Very simple form.  Allows the victim (with or without adult help) and/or his parent or guardian to complete the form and state what happened and where.

After completion, the form is supposed to be turned in (keep a copy for your records!) and something is supposed to happen at the school to deal with the complaint.

This is where it gets tricky.  Privacy laws prevent school district personnel from telling you exactly what discipline was given to the bully (or group of bullies).  So while you may not be able to find out exactly what discipline was doled out, you CAN ask generally what kind of discipline is given to bullies.  The Act specified that each district’s policy must outline what the “graduated consequences” are for each level of harassment.

The ALSDE has also provided school districts with a sample complaint follow-up form.

This form gives a clear indication of what the ALSDE expects from school systems in terms of what is supposed to be done to follow up on a harassment complaint. The Act mandates that the policy must include a “procedure for the prompt investigation” of complaints.

Have School Districts Complied with the Law?

In late 2010, a quick review of school district web sites and electronic and phone inquiries found that many districts did not have the mandated policies nor the mandated forms.  At this point, in March of 2012, that will hopefully no longer be a problem.  I hope to locate each district’s policy and form in the coming weeks and post a directory.

A few school districts and schools do post their policy and reporting form on their web sites.  The policy is general found in the district’s policy manual, which sometimes can be found online.  

Here is an example of a reporting form (7 pages??….quite different from the state sample form).  Here is another reporting form. [FYI:  I looked through 20 school system sites before I found these two.]

Buckhorn Middle School – The Model

One school, Buckhorn Middle School, created a very easy way for students to report incidences of harassment:  P.R.E.S.S. to Stop Bullying.  Their program was created by an innovative Assistant Principal, Dr. Jackie Hester.

What is it?  A big, red button.  When you click the button, you land on an online form where you can easily report an incident of harassment.  Notice that giving your name is optional.  From al.com’s article:  “Since the inception of the program Buckhorn Middle has seen less fighting and defiance of authority, Hester said.”

If you like this, ask your school to put a big red button on their site, too!

Dr. Hester’s presentations can be found on the Alabama State Board of Education’s Stop Bullying Now web site which contains many resources for parents and children who are suffering with being bullied at school.

What If My Child’s School Doesn’t Have an Anti-Harassment Policy and Reporting Form As Required by Law?

The first place to look for the reporting form is in the guidance counselor’s and/or principal’s office.  If there is no form, and no one seems to know what you’re talking about, contact your district’s Central Office and find out where it is.  If the Central Office has no idea what you’re talking about, or doesn’t immediately let you know where you can find the form, you should contact the ALSDE’s State Superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice.  Let him know your situation and ask for help.

What Are Our Options If the Bullying Continues?

What should you do if, even though you have followed every step the law prescribes, jumped through all of the hoops that your school district has offered, and yet the bullying continues?  This is a tough call.  Anecdotal experience tells me that many families ask for a transfer to a different school, withdraw the child to eventually homeschool, or enroll their child in a private school.

Before you uproot your child, you should know that there are additional tools if you feel “bullied out” of your child’s school. [Note:  You know your child better than anyone.  If a move is what feels right, then do it.  The goal here is just to let you know your options under current law.]

IF the harassment is due to your child’s race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, your child has additional protections under civil rights and other federal laws.  Read this letter from the Department of Justice (DOJ) carefully.  Take the time to review this fact sheet as well.  If you believe the bullying your child is suffering falls into one of these categories, you need to take action.

The letter from the DOJ makes it clear that if the harassment meets the level of violating civil rights laws, the school has not done enough to protect a child if a “hostile environment” still exists.  Exactly what “hostile environment” means, and the breadth of a school’s culpability is being decided in federal courtrooms all over the country.

Lawsuits are being filed all over the country.  Here’s one in Texas, two weeks ago.  Here’s one from Tennessee, where a judge ordered a school district to pay the family of a bullied child with autism $300,000.  Here’s a wrongful death suit from Utah, 4 weeks ago, where a young man committed suicide allegedly as a result of bullying.  Two different families filed suits against a Georgia school district, with at least a partial result of getting that school district to revamp its anti-bullying policies.  This lawsuit from New York, filed by a parent of a child being harassed because of his disability resulted in a judge developing a legal test for determining whether children served by special education under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) are being denied an appropriate education because of the bullying.

And this well-known Minnesota lawsuit, settled only days ago, resulted in a settlement with the school district agreeing to pay $270,000 each to six students.

Review – What Do I Need to Do to Help My Child?

(1)  Encourage your child to complete the required reporting form.  The act of reporting the bullying can be empowering.  If your child is unable to complete the form, do it for her.

(2)  Keep a copy of the form.

(3)  Ask your school’s administrators what they will do at this point.

(4)  Follow up to ensure your child is safe at school.  Keep lines of communication with the school open.

(5)  If school officials cannot successfully end the bullying, explore your legal options.

Ensure your child is safe throughout this process.  The evidence is clear:  being bullied negatively impacts your child’s education. You are your child’s best advocate.  You should take whatever actions that you believe necessary within the law  to ensure that a safe environment surrounds your child while he is at school.

Additional Bills Introduced in This Year’s Regular Session – 2012

As of this writing, three bills, two in the House, one in the Senate, have been introduced with the purpose of strengthening and/or expanding protections for students in schools.

Each of the three bills would be named the Alex Moore Anti-Bullying Act to honor the young girl who committed suicide, allegedly due in part to being bullied at school.

HB10 calls for immunity for those who report incidents of harassment, provides that a student can be reassigned to another school for the purpose of separating the student from his or her harassment victim, and requires a school district to develop a method to notify parents and guardians of victims and perpetrators when harassment is reported.  It also requires that any teacher or other school employee who has reliable information that would lead a reasonable person to suspect that someone is a target of harassment must immediately report that information to the school principal.  Additionally, a local board not in compliance with the requirements of the Act will be deemed “ineligible to receive state funding.”

HB41 is nearly identical to HB10, with only a few minor word changes.

SB32 is identical to HB41.

Each bill calls for a deadline for schools to comply of July 1, 2012.

Take the time to form an opinion about the proposed legislation and let your legislator know what you want for your child’s school.

Additional Resources