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Anti-bullying law shows a weakness

Last modified: 9/17/2012 12:00:00 AM
Last March, a student at Concord's Beaver Meadow School went to Principal John Forrest to complain about being bullied on the playground at recess.

According to a form Forrest filed with the district offices, he called both students' parents that day, spoke with both students the next day, and determined the situation was mutual name-calling and exclusion, not bullying.

That's exactly the way some anti-bullying experts say the incident should have played out under New Hampshire's new law. Others, including the law's authors, disagree.

Educators and activists aren't the only ones confused. And children like Angela Smith's daughter are caught in the middle.

Smith realized something was wrong last December. Her daughter had missed several days of school and called from the nurse's office three times as often as she had in all of the previous year.

Smith sat down and asked her: Why does your tummy hurt? Why does your head hurt? Why don't you want to go school?

Turned out her daughter was being taunted by a classmate at Allenstown Elementary School. He threatened to hurt her and to stab her little sister. He had been saying those things for months.

A guidance counselor witnessed and reported one incident; her daughter told a teacher about another. But in both cases, no one called home about it, Smith said.

District officials did not return calls for comment, but Smith said they told her the incident was a disciplinary problem, not bullying, when she complained about not being notified.

'Whether they see it as bullying or not, I should have been contacted,' she said. 'A threat was made to my child and I didn't know about it.'

While waiting for the district school board to hear her appeal, another incident happened, and she demanded the school separate the children into different classrooms for the remainder of last year. The school board ultimately found the incident was bullying, she said.

The 2011-12 school year was the first under the auspices of the law. Its definition of bullying is clear. New Hampshire schools are expected to investigate each report of possible bullying and measure it against two standards: first, whether the incident interfered with a child's right to an education, and second, whether it involved 'an imbalance of power.'

What's murky is what schools should do about reports, when they should do it and how parents hold officials accountable if they feel their children aren't being protected.

Here's what the law says:

Every school district must have a policy outlining a procedure 'for notification, within 48 hours of the incident report, to the parent or parents or guardian of a victim of bullying or cyberbullying and the parent or parents or guardian of the perpetrator of the bullying or cyberbullying.'

The law also requires that 'investigation of reports . . . be initiated within five school days of the reported incident' and 'the principal or designee develop a response to remediate any substantiated incident of bullying or cyberbullying.'

Parental notification

When should the investigation of bullying reports take place? Even those involved in creating the law and educating schools about it don't agree.

'As far as I'm concerned, it's quite clear,' said Carol Croteau, a Kingston activist who started the site BullyFreeNH.org and worked with legislators on the law. 'Parents felt they weren't being kept in the loop. That was a big driver in getting the new law.'

After a child makes a report that he or she feels bullied, a school administrator is required to take the information and notify all the parents involved within 48 hours, she said.

Then the administrator should investigate to determine if the incident reported was actually bullying, determine an appropriate reaction and again contact all of the parents involved, she said.

School officials that aren't complying are not malicious, just uninformed, she said.

'It's just lack of training on administrators' part about the new law,' she said.

The New Hampshire School Boards Association's staff attorney, Barrett Christina, agrees with her. He said a school is to notify parents within 'the first 48 hours after it receives a complaint about an allegation bullying from a pupil.'

Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire who has been researching peer victimization for more than 30 years, was also involved in writing the state law. But he says schools have 48 hours to decide if an incident is bullying before notifying parents.

'They have to do an initial investigation to see if it really is what the reporting person thought it was,' he said. 'We had some schools where two kids are goofing in the hall and it gets reported as bullying. It's a mistake that some schools have made, notifying before they determine if it's bullying or not. It is a new law, and districts are just getting used to it.'

Smith hoped to convene a meeting with members of the New Hampshire Bar Association to discuss the law but that meeting hasn't happened yet due to scheduling conflicts, he said.

When asked why there are such deep divides on the interpretation of the law and the timeline it calls for, Smith said the law has already accomplished good things by 'elevating the discussion of bullying in every community in the state.'

'It may be a confusing law, but about 15 states have emulated our law at this point,' he said.

Another group, the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, does provide training and information for school leaders on the law's requirements. But Executive Director Mark Joyce said the group's training emphasizes determining whether an incident is bullying before notifying parents.

'There's always some concern or confrontation or teasing that happens in the everyday life of a school that may or may not be bullying,' he said.

Schools' accountability

Data collected by the state Department of Education indicates at least some schools are documenting reports and then investigating, and the language of the reports indicates that's what the department expects from the law.

According to a report from last September, the first since schools were required to document and report bullying, there were 5,561 reports of suspected bullying, and 'the number of investigated and actual (confirmed) bullying events' totaled 2,988.

Reporting of cyberbullying was similar, with 817 reports and 626 confirmed events, according to the state.

No state official is responsible for ensuring schools document reports of bullying before they are investigated.

That's part of the reason Croteau said she wouldn't want parents to feel complacent, even if the law on the books is perfect.

They are the best watchdogs of their children's rights, she said.

'If they do not continue to push back when they think their children aren't being served,' she said, 'the law will not be worth the paper it's printed on.'

But the law is also unclear on how parents are supposed to pursue a bullying complaint that they feel was handled incorrectly.

An Epsom teen identified in state school board documents as 'Student K' and his family sued SAU 53 last year after other students taunted him online and, his family alleged, the school didn't follow the new bullying law.

The family, who requested anonymity to protect their son, settled the case for an undisclosed amount in March.

'What was frustrating to me as a parent was having my child go through what was obviously bullying and . . . the school dismissed it, didn't investigate it, or they did a very, very narrow investigation, and pretty much tried to sweep it under the carpet,' the student's father said.

After appealing the school's actions to the superintendent, they were referred to the school board, and eventually the state school board. Each step along the way, the family was told there was no jurisdiction for appealing inaction on the part of the school.

The case was settled before the state board ruled on it, but the board did find that it had jurisdiction to hear the case.

'You expect the school to protect your child and follow their district policies in those protections,' the student's father said. 'When that doesn't happen at the school level, and then at the superintendent's level and at the school board level, for the district's attorney to argue there is no recourse, no further accountability, nowhere else to go, it's incredibly disheartening as a parent.'

Expand and clarify

Donna Schlachman, a Democratic state representative from Exeter who sponsored the anti-bullying legislation, has said she will work on expanding its protections to college students if re-elected.

After talking with the Monitor about the confusion students and families face about reporting requirements and appeal processes, she said she will work to clarify other parts of it as well.

'I was going to give it another year before addressing that, but I'm thinking now maybe it's not too early,' she said.

Angela Smith's daughter began third grade at Allenstown Elementary School this fall, and Smith is optimistic a new year means a new start.

'My hope is that things will go well. So far so good,' she said.

But that doesn't mean Smith is sitting back.

'I was the type of mom to let the school do their job, but I don't think they did it. I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen again, and I'm just going to be more involved this year,' she said. Her daughter 'doesn't need to have another year like that.'

Student K's father said if he could talk with other parents facing the daunting task of challenging school officials, he would have a simple message.

'You do what you can to protect your child,' he said. 'You'd hate not to take it as far as you could, and if something ever happened, how would you look back and not say I did everything I could to make sure my child was protected?'

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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