I recently watched the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why, and as a parent, just the thought of my daughter ever enduring the harassment and bullying taking place at the popular series’ Liberty High School is a nightmare. The harassment depicted by Thirteen Reasons Why is extreme, to say the least, and goes far beyond typical school-yard bullying. While the level of criminal activity and cover-up by both students and faculty as portrayed in Thirteen Reasons Why is unrealistic, far too many students are bullied on a daily basis, and parents often feel that they have nowhere to turn for help.
This is the first part of a three-part series on what to do about bullying. In this post, I’ll discuss how parents can address bullying at the school district level, and what schools should do once bullying is reported. In Part II, I’ll discuss what options parents have to address bullying at the state and federal agency level, and finally, in Part III, I’ll discuss the possibility of legal action to address bullying.
For parents, the most important first step you can take to address your child being bullied at school is to seek immediate help from your child’s teacher. Never assume that the teacher is aware, and never leave it to your child to report the bullying. This may seem obvious, but I’ve talked with numerous parents who assumed school personnel “should have known” about the bullying and have never actually had a direct conversation with their child’s teacher about it. Yes, it is the school’s job to keep your child safe, but it’s simply not realistic to expect teachers to catch every conflict that may occur.
Once you speak directly to your child’s teacher, review your school’s anti-bullying policies. Pursuant to state law, every public school district must have anti-bullying policies in place. In short, those policies must: (1) define bullying; (2) prohibit bullying; (3) state the consequences for bullying; (4) require school personnel to report bullying; (5) require that anyone who files a complaint for bullying not be subject to retaliation; (6) require notice of what constitutes bullying, that it is prohibited, and the consequences for such to be posted in various places; and (7) require copies of the above notice to be distributed to school personnel and parents. These policies are often contained in the school’s parent or student handbook, so familiarize yourself with these policies.
Once you’ve reported that your child is being bullied, ask how the school plans to investigate. Every situation is different, and different conflicts can warrant different investigations and actions. However, school personnel should do something similar to the following: (1) keep the students involved separate during the investigation (remember, how this is done depends on the severity and circumstances of each case); (2) interview the students privately, both those involved and those who were witnesses; (3) interview any parents, teachers, or other adults who may have witnessed, or were notified of, the bullying; and (4) determine whether the alleged acts were, in fact, bullying and determine what to do about it.
When devising a plan to address bullying, schools should seek input from the bullied student and his/her parents as to what can be done to make the student feel safe again. A student who has been bullied shouldn’t be singled out. All too often, I hear of cases where a student who has been bullied is eating lunch in the counselor’s office every day in order to separate the child from his/her bullies. This may seem like a good way to keep that student safe, and it’s often the easiest way to handle the situation for the school, but it singles the student out and can make them feel as if the bullying was their fault. If it’s necessary to remove students from the classroom, lunch room, etc., it should be the aggressors, not the victim.
The most helpful thing a parent can do is to work with school personnel to address the bullying. Don’t be an adversary, at least not in the beginning. It can take time to fully address a situation properly, and the bullying may not end overnight. Simply suspending a student for bullying doesn’t work in the long-term. The underlying behavior needs to be addressed. Often, students bully others in order to fit in. Other times, the student may be having difficulties at home. Determining the underlying cause of the bullying is important, because only then can the school start to truly address those issues and prevent bullying in the future.
Finally, if you have reported that your child is being bullied to your child’s teacher and no steps are being taken to address the situation, then continue to report the situation up the chain of command, so to speak. Talk to an assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and even to the superintendent if you have to. Superintendents are busy, so schedule a meeting with them. Write an email, write a letter, or call their office. Be willing to meet before school, after school, or whenever they’re available. Be persistent, but be respectful and courteous. The majority of bullying situations can be addressed when school personnel and parents work together.
In Part II, I’ll discuss what parents can do if the bullying continues even after taking the steps above to address the bullying at the school district level.