School Climate & Safety

Bullying Policies Slow to Reach Schools

By Michelle Galley — December 11, 2002 9 min read
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One student was close to tears when he heard the news.

“Who will take up for me now?” he asked 17-year-old Elliott Crutchfield. As a member of the Civil Rights Team Project at Liberty High School here, Mr. Crutchfield intervened when students were being bullied or harassed—at least until last month.

That was when the state school board suspended the voluntary statewide program to curb bullying in public schools that Liberty High had adopted. The plug was pulled, for the time being, after some parents and conservative groups contended that the program endorsed homosexuality.

West Virginia’s experience illustrates some of the challenges states can face when they adopt measures aimed at creating school environments in which students are free from bullying and taunting.

Following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, many state policymakers set out to find ways to define and deter bullying and related behavior that experts say contribute to campus violence. Information collected for Education Week‘s upcoming Quality Counts 2003 report shows that 33 states now require or recommend that districts implement anti-bullying programs.

So far, the record of those efforts is mixed.

Some administrators resist confronting the problem, and legislation often is vague on what they should do. In addition, the necessary financial support, training, and enforcement for such measures often have been lacking.

A number of states, though, have seen progress as school systems follow their policymakers’ leads: In those states, school staff members are being trained and programs started, all in the name of friendlier and more tolerant campuses.

Then there are the students at Liberty High, who simply want to know what went wrong here.

“We aren’t pro- this or anti- that,” said Mr. Crutchfield, a senior who has been part of the civil rights project since it began three years ago. “If a kid calls a kid any name at all—it doesn’t matter if it is the n-word or ‘faggot'—if it hurts the kid’s feelings ... that’s when we stick up for them.”

Different Paths

The Columbine shootings in Colorado prompted many states to look at anti-bullying policies in light of reports that the two student gunmen had been harassed at school—a factor that some observers cite in seeking to explain their violent acts.

But it has not always been clear to state lawmakers and other officials just how to proceed.

The result? “The legislation is all over the place,” said Jane Grady, the assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, located at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In Michigan, for example, the state board of education drew up a policy stating that schools “should” implement programs addressing bullying.

That board, however, cannot require anything of schools, according to Nancy Stanley, the associate executive director of the Michigan School Administrators Association. So what is happening with anti-bullying efforts in Michigan? “Basically nothing,” she said.

In other states, the legislatures took up the charge.

Colorado and New Hampshire, for example, passed laws on school bullying in the spring of 2000. Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Washington state passed legislation this past spring.

Ms. Grady said the sluggish economy has been an obstacle in states where legislatures do not pass mandates that are unfunded.

But even in states, like Colorado, that mandate programs and training to curtail bullying, it is up to school administrators to decide how much time and energy they will put into the effort.

Some Colorado administrators may only put a poster up in the hallway saying that bullying is unacceptable, Ms. Grady said. No clear enforcement systems are in place to make sure the state’s schools take even that modest step, she added.

New Hampshire school officials say they are starting to see results from their state’s anti-bullying legislation, which required schools to adopt violence- prevention programs that include the issue of bullying.

Since schools started implementing the programs, administrators and students are more aware that bullying is a problem, said Mark V. Joyce, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrator’s Association.

“Initially, as is often the case, [the anti-bullying initiative] was seen as something separate and an addition to what you already do,” Mr. Joyce said. “As people worked through it, they were able to blend it or overlay it into ongoing school improvement efforts.”

Just as efforts to discourage students from using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco have become commonplace in schools over the past 30 years, so will efforts to discourage bullying, he predicted. But, Mr. Joyce added, “if it is seen as an external issue, it can be seen as an appendage that people will get to when they can, and it doesn’t catch hold.”

Under a law enacted last spring, district administrators in Washington state must adopt policies addressing harassment and bullying by Aug. 1 of next year.

Mack Armstrong, the superintendent of the state’s 6,000-student Mount Vernon school district, is skeptical about such mandates. He warned that “you can’t legislate” anti- bullying behavior.

He began warming up to the idea, however, after learning that the legislation encourages districts to reach out to community members and business leaders. And he was excited, he said, to get input from the large Hispanic population in the district, because those members of the community traditionally have not been closely involved in policy decisions.

Mr. Armstrong is in the process of developing an anti-bullying program for his school, and he has a clear idea of how the process will work: Students need to help design it, and it needs to change the culture of the school so that bullying is no longer “cool.”

Controversy Erupts

Changing school culture so that students no longer accept bullying was an aim of West Virginia’s Civil Rights Team Project, which was implemented in the fall of 1999, said Paul Sheridan, the assistant state attorney general who devised the program. Modeled after an initiative crafted by the attorney general’s office in Maine, the program sought to make bullying unpopular in schools. To help a school reach that goal, a handful of students from each grade would team up with a teacher to discuss the problem and brainstorm solutions for their school.

In addition, team members intervened on behalf of students who were bullied, and tried to be positive role models.

“We start from the understanding that peer pressure is an important component—it can be constructive or destructive,” Mr. Sheridan said. Students, he added, facilitate bullying by not speaking out against it.

Here in Clarksburg, Liberty High students in the program approached bullies in noncontroversial ways, participants say.

“We don’t yell at them,” Patrick Huffman, a senior said. “We just say, ‘Hey man, that’s not a cool thing to do.’ And they’re more scared of us because we’re kids their own age.”

Still, controversy over the program erupted last spring.

Members of the American Family Association of West Virginia and the West Virginia Family Foundation told the state board of education that they objected to some training materials developed for the project.

Kevin McCoy, who heads both the advocacy groups, said in an interview that the materials were “not just tolerating, but promoting” homosexuality.

Randy Sharp, the director of special projects for the American Family Association, said his Tupelo, Miss.-based national organization joined the protest over the training materials. For example, he said, the list of possible anti-bullying strategies included issuing buttons to students that said “les/bi/gay” and the use of terms such as “partner” or “significant other” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

The idea for the buttons, according to Mr. Sheridan of the attorney general’s office, was to help acknowledge that not all students are heterosexual.

Mr. Sharp countered that the materials do not recommend other descriptions for Christian, such as “born again” and “lover of God.”

“It doesn’t say that because it would be considered a promotion of Christianity,” he said.

Under Review

Sexual orientation, though, was never part of the students’ training, according to David Book, the principal of Liberty High School. “That is what is so upsetting to me—that someone could come up with that [allegation],” he said.

Students in the program say they were offended by allegations that the program was somehow anti- Christian. “I go to church, and personally I don’t believe in [homosexuality],” said Mr. Huffman, who was a leader in the program. “But I will still respect them no matter what. Just because I don’t like you doesn’t mean that I have to voice it.”

“What could be more Christian?” added Mr. Crutchfield, his fellow senior.

Liberty High students are quick to point to the many facets of the program that they say have made their school a safer place.

They staged events to raise student awareness about bullying. One day, they randomly assigned cafeteria seating so students could get to know one another better.

They also worked with the shop class to design a large wooden jigsaw puzzle as part of the project. The puzzle used a photo of the school as a background, and each piece featured a word the participants believed could best represent the school, such as “acceptance,” “dignity,” “equality,” “self- respect,” and “values.”

“That doesn’t matter to us,” Mr. McCoy of the West Virginia family-advocacy groups said of the approach at Liberty High. “We look at the program as a whole and not at what they pick and choose to do.”

As for bullying in general, Mr. Sharp of the American Family Association said he, too, was picked on at school: “I was called a ‘choir pansy.’” To stop the name- calling, all he had to do was to tell the principal, he said. And that should be the protocol today, he added.

But few students are likely to take that step. And, even if they seek help from principals, that isn’t enough, says James Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University.

“To deal with it on a case-by-case basis is the wrong strategy,” argued Mr. Garbarino, the author of the recently released book And Words Can Hurt Forever: How To Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence.

“It doesn’t work,” he said, “and a substantial number of kids are going to feel that adults are not protecting them.” He added that a disproportionate number of homosexual students are bullied and, because of personal biases, administrators may handle each case differently.

Liberty High, meanwhile, may get a chance to reinstate its program. The West Virginia board of education is reviewing the statewide project.

“We absolutely did not have a real good idea of whether there were acceptable or unacceptable things going on,” said Barbara Fisher, a member of the state board who is part of a committee that is taking a closer look at the project.

So far, the panel has learned that only 22 public schools out of almost 800 in the state participated in the program over the past three years.

Liberty High students were eager to talk to Ms. Fisher during a planned visit to the school to explain to her exactly what the project has meant to them.

“This was an opportunity in our school to help all of our students and people involved with our community understand and appreciate cultural diversity,” said the principal, Mr. Book. “It was good for our kids.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bullying Policies Slow to Reach Schools

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