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Desert Companion

Education: Push and shove

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Bully
Brent Holmes

A tough new law puts more pressure on educators to respond to bullying incidents — or face punishment

Consider the pressure faced by school district principals. They must juggle schedules to fill thousands of teacher vacancies. They are directly responsible for the welfare of thousands of elementary, middle-school or high-school students. They are the direct supervisors of hundreds of teachers and support staff. They must meet or exceed educational benchmarks to maintain their funding and positions.

Now they face new bullying policies that, if they fail to quickly and fully investigate and report an incidence of bullying, could mean the loss of their professional licenses.

The new bullying rules stem from Senate Bill 504, a law drafted and strongly supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office, which passed the Legislature in the spring as one of a raft of education-oriented bills that included funding increases for the public schools and vouchers to support private and religious schools.

No one we contacted — school principals, teachers and Clark County School District staff — discounted the threat that bullying poses to the physical and psychological well-being of students, or of the impact that bullying can have on a students’ educational achievement. There have been, on the national level, some experts who have warned that serious incidents can be lost in the flood of less-serious or even unintentional bullying reports.

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But overall, almost all states have anti-school-bullying laws and, with reports of school violence and suicide linked to bullying, schools and teachers are taking reports of bullying as red flags.

“I think my colleagues and I take bullying very seriously, because there is no way to know how it will end for the student,” says Elizabeth Camp Bell, a 20-year veteran who teaches Spanish at Las Vegas’ West Career and Technical Academy. “We must report when we think kids are at physical risk and our responsibilities are very clear in that case, but we’ve traditionally under-emphasized the emotional and psychological damage students face. At least the new bullying reporting rules put everyone in the kid’s sphere on notice that he/she may be at risk.”

The new rules say that “teachers, administrators, principals, coaches or other staff members” who fail to investigate and report to parents’ allegations of bullying within 48 hours can lose their jobs and their licenses to teach.  Principals or their designated representatives have, at the latest, until the end of the next school day to notify parents of a bullying incident and everyone involved has to be interviewed within 48 hours.

 

‘Out of control’ rules?

Along with the new rules, the legislation created an Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment that will maintain a full-time hotline and website by which a person may report bullying or cyber-bullying or receive information regarding anti-bullying efforts. The new rules also require administrators to respond to incidents even if they happen outside of regular school hours. The mandate also includes an appeal process both for bullying victims and their families and for accused bullies.

Administrators declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. Their local union, the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the new bullying policies.

One principal says, on background, that the new rules are “becoming an out-of-control issue,” but there appear to be few options for principals or other school staff: SB 504 is the law, and everyone affected has to respond.

The issue of bullying is not new. During hearings on the legislation, the father of Hailee Lamberth, a White Middle School student who they said committed suicide after bullying, testified for the bill. Other students told the Legislature that they were victims of bullying. Parents told the Legislature that their children were physically and emotional scarred by bullying that the previous law — which gave principals 10 days to investigate incidents — did not address.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the district reported 2,286 incidents of bullying, 2,284 of which were confirmed after an investigation, according to the last complete year available from the annual Nevada Report Card of schools. There were 3,189 confirmed bullying incidents statewide. In that same year, the incidents led to 391 cases of suspension or expulsion from district schools, 725 suspensions or expulsions statewide.

One factor that teachers and former teachers anecdotally reported: There are (or have been) wide differences in how bullying is reported, investigated and handled between schools. This appears to be supported by the Nevada Report Card. For example, in the 2013-2014 year, 13 district schools reported 30 or more incidents; one, John C. Fremont Middle School, reported and confirmed 90 incidents, leading to a dozen expulsions or suspensions.

But 97 public schools in the district reported no bullying at all. Either there has been a marked difference in the cultures of bullying in different schools, or staff has not been responding in a consistent way. The law should address inconsistencies in the response, former State Superintendent Dale Erquiaga says. (Erquiaga has since been appointed the state’s chief strategy officer by Sandoval.)

“The governor heard loud and clear about a year ago from a group of families on this issue,” Erquiaga says. He acknowledged that principals are concerned that the new rules provide “very tight timelines” for responses to incidents, but there is some flexibility built in when administrators and other school employees make a good-faith effort to respond. “Everybody’s working to get it right.”

“Keeping a child safe at school is our primary responsibility,” he says. “Nevada has adopted a zero-tolerance policy.”

 

‘It’s different today’

Erquiaga says that as a student, he too, had been bullied, but it was before the era of computers and cell phones that bring peer groups literally into bedrooms. “I could get away from it,” he said. “It’s different today.”

As part of the new law, six employees of the new Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment are working to provide training materials, guidelines and other supports for schools statewide, he says.

Clark County School District staff have been working through the summer to respond to the new mandate. Tammy A. Malich, district assistant superintendent, said the focus has been providing staff, especially administrators, with flow charts and other written guidance and in-person training to ensure that decisions are made correctly at every step in response to an incident.

“I believe we have prepared them to handle it to the best of their ability,” Malich says of the new bullying rules, but she acknowledged that the real test will come with the new year. It won’t necessarily be easy, but the district staff is working to make adopting the rules as smooth a process as possible.

Brandon Moeller, assistant director for the district Equity and Diversity Education Department, says one key element for the new rules would be for families and victims to quickly report incidents. “Report, report, report,” he says. “The sooner we can involve our administrators and teachers, the sooner we hear about, the sooner we can respond.”

Erquiaga agrees. “Everybody’s looking at how to get it right,” he said. “This is an important year for families in Nevada.  We’re going to turn the corner on our challenges.”

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