One of the goals in the District’s five-year strategic plan adopted in March 2015 is to provide a “safe and supportive school climate.” The stated goal is to “Ensure all District 65 Schools have positive school climates built upon clear and equitable policies and practices where all members of the school community feel emotionally and physically safe, included, and accepted.”
On April 4, 2019, Superintendent Paul Goren sent a letter to the District 65 community. The letter said, “Recently, several concerns have been raised about bullying. We recognize the real and lasting impact that bullying can have on students and will never condone actions that have the potential to cause physical or emotional harm. We further recognize that until a child has their physical needs met, which includes feeling safe, they will not be able to engage in learning. For these reasons, we are committed to continuing to address issues of bullying to ensure that all children feel safe, welcome, and ready to learn.”
We have heard complaints of bullying in the past year, some of which have persisted for extended periods of time. Many are heart-wrenching stories involving students with a disability. On one recent occasion, a mother of color told us in a lengthy email and a followup interview that her daughter had been physically threatened and bullied at school at various times during a two-month period.
School officials did take a number of steps to try to stop the threats and the bullying, but the mother says the steps were ineffective and her daughter did not feel safe at school. She pulled her child out of school after a heated discussion with a school administrator and police were called.
Recognizing that we had only one side of the story, we asked Dr. Goren to comment on the situation, and he responded, “The issues raised reflect a very multi-faceted and difficult situation. The [middle school team] has followed protocol in developing short- and long-term strategies to engage families and students in problem solving and solutions.”
When we asked the school principal specific questions about the situation, we were told that many of our questions could not be answered due to student privacy laws. But the principal said, “We take bullying and conflict seriously … and recognize the real and lasting impact that it can have on students. We care very deeply about the well-being and safety of every child. Members of our team have a responsibility to both understand and address the physical and emotional trauma experienced by students as it relates to issues of bullying.”
The principal also listed many things that the school is doing to stop bullying. In regard to a question about calling the police, the principal said, “Officers are only called to intervene in situations where there is a concern for student and adult safety,” but the principal did not provide any details justifying why police were called in this particular instance.
We are left with a number of concerns about bullying that arise out of this incident and other incidents that we are aware of as well. We understand that the Board’s Policy Committee is planning to consider bullying at its May 13 meeting. We hope Committee members will take a serious, in depth look at these issues:
First, are the schools properly and effectively implementing restorative practices and meetings? Are school staff taking the time to build trust with both sides? What are school staff doing to allay any fears that threatened or bullied students may have about participating in a meeting with those whom they perceive have threatened or bullied them over a period of time?
Second, do the schools have a responsibility to promptly stop any threats and bullying of a student, or is it okay if children suffer the trauma of threats and bullying for weeks or months? If restorative practices are not working after a week or a few weeks, does the District have an obligation to take other steps to stop the threats and bullying, and if so, what other steps should be taken?
Third, is it an acceptable solution to tell a child, particularly a child with a disability, that he or she needs to adapt to a bullying or threatening environment and know when to walk away? Is this approach normalizing – or institutionalizing – the threats and bullying? Is this approach simply relegating a threatened or bullied student to a school environment in which the student does not feel safe and secure and that is not conductive to learning?
Fourth, when is it permissible for school administrators to call police on a parent who is complaining that they have failed to provide a safe environment for her or his child? In this type of situation, should an administrator be permitted to call the police if a parent has shown anger, but has not orally or physically threatened to harm the administrator?
Fifth, what role does social media – as used by both students and parents – play in bullying? What can the District do about it?