Recent national tragedies involving youth bullying have heightened the sense of urgency to both understand and reduce the behavior. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, up to half of all children are bullied at some point during their school years. Policymakers at the federal, state and local level have taken a number of independent steps to strengthen school-based awareness, prevention and intervention strategies.
What are PAUSD schools doing about bullying?
When we were growing up, bullying was typically handled with a disciplinary response. The body of research on root causes and effective responses was slim. More recently, however, schools are focusing attention on proven strategies that take into account the complexity of bullying behavior.
For a number of years, Palo Alto schools have been building on the use of these new strategies to reduce bullying at all levels. Principals and teachers deliver age-appropriate instruction to all students in a variety of ways, including group lessons, role-playing exercises and peer-to-peer skill building. Topics include tolerance, compassion, inclusion and the power of personal choice. Some exercises address hurtful or harassing behaviors, including cyber-bullying, while other lessons build skills on how bystanders can take a stand against bullying, as "upstanders."
Judging by the numbers, the efforts of staff and parents are yielding positive results at Palo Alto schools. Progress on most of our district's student wellness goals, including bullying reduction, is regularly measured by soliciting student feedback, such as perception of school safety (e.g., How safe do you feel when you are at school?), or school connectedness (e.g., Is there an adult on campus you would go to with a serious personal challenge?).
In one recent survey, the percent of PAUSD middle school students bullied verbally once a week or more dropped from 8.5 percent to 5.5 percent between 2008 and 2012. In another survey conducted last year, 83 percent to 88 percent of PAUSD 7th, 9th and 11th graders reported feeling safe or very safe at school, compared to 62 percent to 68 percent in Santa Clara County.
Certainly, our work is far from done in the area of bullying and school climate. The more we learn from experts, the more we will translate it into training for our staff and teaching for our students. But the lessons we offer today have led to specific and measurable improvements for our students.
Why did the federal government investigate our school district?
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for ensuring equal access to education and resolving complaints of discrimination. Anyone is entitled to file a complaint with the OCR, and such a complaint was submitted against the district on July 11, 2011, resulting in an investigation.
The school board was informed of the OCR investigation by district staff and given updates on the case during 2011 and 2012. Our staff worked collaboratively with the OCR and reached an agreement on ways we can improve our district procedures. The OCR staff described a district attitude of "cooperation and courtesy," with appreciation for "the steps taken to resolve this matter in a constructive manner." While we were disappointed that we did not receive the final documents as soon as we should have, we are not disappointed with the resulting agreement and plan.
While there is understandable community interest in knowing all the facts in this particular case, it is the obligation of every school district to protect the privacy rights of students, even if the parent chooses to share confidential documents with the press. All board discussions on specific student cases take place in closed session.
What does discrimination have to do with bullying?
Bullying is a complicated and challenging issue with substantial disagreement at the policy level. In 2010, the OCR issued a letter notifying all public schools that some student bullying may be viewed as discrimination and subject to their enforcement going forward. More specifically, that bullying behavior "need not include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents."
While the goal of reducing bullying is widely supported, the OCR guidance has been a concern for school districts because it differs significantly from current law, including California law, which defines bullying and school responsibilities very differently.
In response to the OCR letter, the National Schools Boards Association (NSBA) wrote: "Our fear is that absent clarification, the Department's expansive reading of the law ... will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial climates that distract schools from their educational mission." They later wrote that the "OCR is creating an expectation that school officials are to respond to each and every offensive incident as if it were a civil rights violation."
What are the next steps for our school district?
In the coming weeks and months, the school district will update and standardize our policies and procedures related to bullying prevention and intervention; improve the way we collect and share data about bullying incidents to further reduce them; and expand student and staff training on discrimination and bullying to reflect our values and emerging legislation.
We also want to ensure that parents and students have a clear pathway to report bullying concerns their children may be facing at school, and easy access to information on the follow-up they can expect from school and district staff.
As every parent and teacher knows, children don't arrive in kindergarten with fully developed social skills such as empathy and resilience. That's why one of the most significant roles we share is protecting all of the children under our wings. This is a role to which PAUSD staff members are and will continue to be committed, with care, skill and compassion.