Any comprehensive response to a bullying incident requires a report to administration. While some of my more creative friends suggested that I should take matters into my own hands and go directly to the parents or even meet the bully in the alley one day after school, such responses are usually not effective and may end up resulting in your own arrest. As such, your choices are to report or not and my strong advice is that you must report. Most bullying incidents go un-reported so schools think that they have no problem with bullying. They need to see the truth and that means that as uncomfortable as a report might be, it must be done.
It is important to arm yourself with information, lots of information, before you report to school administration.
First, you need to look up your school’s policies. Most are available on line. You want to review your school’s policies on bullying, harassment, and hate motivated behavior. In California, most schools that are complying with California’s special hate crimes law will have policies on all three. They may fall under the title “discrimination” or “harassment” or “bullying” (or all three) but you need to know the policies. You should also look at the discipline policies or any discipline action guide, setting forth the likely response to any specific type of incident that you might report.
What will you find? Well, generally, you will find comprehensive sexual harassment policies that detail a comprehensive investigation process. You may find a policy forbidding hate motivated behavior and defining it but providing little in the way of “process” if it is reported. And, you will likely find an anti-bullying policy that says that the school is a zero tolerance school, that bullying is absolutely prohibited but again, provides little in the way of guidance in terms of a process for investigation or reporting. Many school discipline guides define bullying as “repeated or systematic bullying, name-calling, or harassment”. Of course, if you are a zero tolerance school, you should tolerate ZERO incidences of bullying but, by definition, it isn’t bullying until it is repeated? How does this make any sense? Now you understand why it might be better to report any bullying as sexual harassment or hate motivated behavior.
What you are hoping to find is a policy that sets out a procedure for an investigation with a timetable. The policy should include steps to interview the victim, accused, witnesses, and teachers. There should be procedures in the event of “he said – she said” accusations as most bullying takes place in private, without witnesses. Consider the following policy for investigation of sexual harassment complaints:
1. Notice and Receipt of Complaint: Any student who believes he/she has been subjected to sexual harassment or who has witnessed sexual harassment may file a complaint with any school employee. Within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, the school employee shall report it to the district Coordinator for Nondiscrimination/Principal. In addition, any school employee who observes any incident of sexual harassment involving a student shall, within 24 hours, report this observation to the Coordinator/Principal, whether or not the victim files a complaint.
In any case of sexual harassment involving the Coordinator/Principal to whom the complaint would ordinarily be made, the employee who receives the student's report or who observes the incident shall instead report to the Superintendent or designee.
2. Initiation of Investigation: The Coordinator/Principal shall initiate an impartial investigation of an allegation of sexual harassment within five school days of receiving notice of the harassing behavior, regardless of whether a formal complaint has been filed. The district shall be considered to have "notice" of the need for an investigation upon receipt of information from a student who believes he/she has been subjected to harassment, the student's parent/guardian, an employee who received a complaint from a student, or any employee or student who witnessed the behavior.
If the Coordinator/Principal receives an anonymous complaint or media report about alleged sexual harassment, he/she shall consider the specificity and reliability of the information, the seriousness of the alleged incident, and whether any individuals can be identified who were subjected to the alleged harassment in determining whether it is reasonable to pursue an investigation.
3. Initial Interview with Student: When a student or parent/guardian has complained or provided information about sexual harassment, the Coordinator/Principal shall describe the district's grievance procedure and discuss what actions are being sought by the student in response to the complaint. The student who is complaining shall have an opportunity to describe the incident, identify witnesses who may have relevant information, provide other evidence of the harassment, and put his/her complaint in writing. If the student requests confidentiality, he/she shall be informed that such a request may limit the district's ability to investigate.
4. Investigation Process: The Coordinator/Principal shall keep the complaint and allegation confidential, except as necessary to carry out the investigation or take other subsequent necessary action.
The Coordinator/Principal shall interview individuals who are relevant to the investigation, including, but not limited to, the student who is complaining, the person accused of harassment, anyone who witnessed the reported harassment, and anyone mentioned as having relevant information. The Coordinator/Principal may take other steps such as reviewing any records, notes, or statements related to the harassment or visiting the location where the harassment is alleged to have taken place.
When necessary to carry out his/her investigation or to protect student safety, the Coordinator/Principal also may discuss the complaint with the Superintendent or designee, the parent/guardian of the student who complained, the parent/guardian of the alleged harasser if the alleged harasser is a student, a teacher or staff member whose knowledge of the students involved may help in determining who is telling the truth, law enforcement and/or child protective services, and district legal counsel or the district's risk manager.
5. Interim Measures: The Coordinator/Principal shall determine whether interim measures are necessary during and pending the results of the investigation, such as placing students in separate classes or transferring a student to a class taught by a different teacher.
6. Optional Mediation: In cases of student-to-student harassment, when the student who complained and the alleged harasser so agree, the Coordinator/Principal may arrange for them to resolve the complaint informally with the help of a counselor, teacher, administrator, or trained mediator. The student who complained shall never be asked to work out the problem directly with the accused person unless such help is provided and both parties agree, and he/she shall be advised of the right to end the informal process at any time.
7. Factors in Reaching a Determination: In reaching a decision about the complaint, the Coordinator/Principal may take into account:
a. Statements made by the persons identified above
b. The details and consistency of each person's account
c. Evidence of how the complaining student reacted to the incident
d. Evidence of any past instances of harassment by the alleged harasser
e. Evidence of any past harassment complaints that were found to be untrue
To judge the severity of the harassment, the Coordinator/Principal may take into consideration:
a. How the misconduct affected one or more students' education
b. The type, frequency, and duration of the misconduct
c. The identity, age, and sex of the harasser and the student who complained, and the relationship between them
d. The number of persons engaged in the harassing conduct and at whom the harassment was directed
e. The size of the school, location of the incidents, and context in which they occurred
f. Other incidents at the school involving different students
8. Written Report on Findings and Follow-Up: No more than 30 days after receiving the complaint, the Coordinator/Principal shall conclude the investigation and prepare a written a report of his/her findings. This timeline may be extended for good cause. If an extension is needed, the Coordinator/Principal shall notify the student who complained and explain the reasons for the extension.
The report shall include the decision and the reasons for the decision and shall summarize the steps taken during the investigation. If sexual harassment occurred, the report shall also include any corrective actions that have or will be taken to address the harassment and prevent any retaliation or further harassment. This report shall be presented to the student who complained, the person accused, the parents/guardians of the student who complained and the student who was accused, and the Superintendent or designee.
In addition, the Coordinator/Principal shall ensure that the harassed student and his/her parent/guardian are informed of the procedures for reporting any subsequent problems. The Coordinator/Principal shall also make follow-up inquiries to see if there have been any new incidents or retaliation and shall keep a record of this information.
While most of the above makes good sense, you would be surprised that many school policies are vague, leave discretion as to what to do, when to do it and what to tell you to the discretion of the principal, and you are left wondering why you followed my advice to report. But, if you do find a policy that includes a comprehensive investigation, you want to make sure your report will fall under that policy (e.g. calling it sexual harassment instead of bullying if the comprehensive investigative process only applies to harassment claims). Once reported, you want to hold them to the policy.
You would be surprised how often none of this is done in a "he said, she said" investigation (a report of a bullying incident with no witnesses). The school may talk to both parties, get conflicting stories, and wash their hands of the situation. This result occurs despite other confirming evidence that would support a finding (one way or the other). The key here is to FIRST uncover the policies so that you can insure that you report any incident in a way that would compel compliance with the above type of policy. For example, in our district, while we now have this type of policy for sexual harassment claims and hate motivated behavior, the same investigative steps were NOT incorporated into the bullying policy. As such, if you report bullying, you were not necessarily going to get this type of investigation. If you report sexual harassment or hate motivated behavior, however, the district would be obligated to comply with the investigative steps set out above.
A few words of caution before you report and while you are reporting. If they offer you mediation, DO NOT accept it. Research supports that mediation rarely is helpful because of the imbalance of power between the victim and his/her abuser. If Peer Mediation is a part of their campus and they regularly have peer mediation and talk about it and its value and show how it works, maybe that is one thing. But, in a recent Department of Justice publication on bullying, peer mediation was listed as a tool with “limited effectiveness”. “Because bullying involves harassment by powerful children of children with less power (rather than a conflict between peers of relatively equal status), common conflict-resolution strategies or mediation may not be effective.” Peer mediation works if the kids are of relatively equal status; if your child is being bullied, he probably is not of “equal status” with his abuser. You can read the DOJ bullying publication here. http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/publications/e07063414-guide.pdf
A second word of caution. Make sure you are present when they interview YOUR child, particularly if your child has a disability that impacts his language. When I first reported to my son’s middle school abuser to the school counselor, he referred the report to the Vice Principal who was in charge of discipline. I met with the VP who told me that they had to FIRST interview my son before they could start an investigation. I asked the VP to give me a play by play to show me what the interview process would look like. He looked perplexed but I stood my ground and asked him to pretend I was my son and to ask me the questions that he would ask. I answered as I suspected my son would answer and in less than 6 questions, the well-meaning Vice Principal was using leading questions that made it seem like my son was responsible or had done something wrong. I nicely asked: “Have you ever watch Law and Order SVU?” When he admitted that he had, I said, “Do you know why they have special SVU detectives interview children?” I then explained the problem of his well-intentioned but inappropriate questioning techniques and insisted that the district counselor do the interview and, only after I met with her and insured that she understood what she was NOT to do. She used open ended questions that were simply designed to get my son’s side of the story without further victimizing my son (or making him think that he was responsible for the abuse, something he already was thinking because of his own issues with self-esteem).
A third word of caution about anonymity. Most schools allow accusers to remain anonymous but the reality is that if you remain anonymous, there is difficulty in investigating the allegations. They then blame the request for anonymity on any dissatisfaction with the investigation (e.g. “well, this is the best we can do when you want to remain anonymous”. So, there are things you can do to help facilitate the investigation and still protect your child’s back-side.
While your child may tell you that there were no witnesses, consider if there were others in the vicinity. For example, if your child tells you that he was being harassed in the locker room during the change out but there were no witnesses, he may be right. But, if you change the question to: “Were there other children in the locker room in the vicinity when this was going on” the answer may change. If there were, the bully may not know that there were no witnesses. So, you could request that the counselor/vice principal doing the investigation approach the bully with something like this: “We have received a report that you were harassing/bullying Billy during the PE change out with many other kids in the vicinity”. The bully won’t know who ratted him out and, if it was true, may give it up. This was actually the tactic that I used with my own son and amazingly, the bully fessed up immediately and claimed he had no idea why he did it (I ultimately suspected he was being abused by someone, perhaps a parent, and was looking for someone he perceived to be weaker to take it out on, a classic finding in bullying events).
Another idea is the anonymous tip box. Many schools have anonymous tip boxes where students can put any questions/concerns to the counseling staff. Some actually have “bully boxes” where kids are encouraged to report bullying (a great idea to recommend to your schools, by the way). If they do, you can offer to file an anonymous tip in the bully box/confidential question box that says: “I saw Joe Bullly harass Billy Victim during the PE change out on Monday; he called Billy gay and teased him about whatever”. They then can show that “complaint” to the bully who will think that a witness reported it. Again, the key is to get innovative and challenge the school to protect your child while still doing their investigation.
If it turns out that the situation is a true "he said, she said", and the bully denies the attack, and there are no witnesses, then you want to look at insuring that they have complied with any policies for resolving the dispute to make sure there is a paper trail. If the bully got away with it this time, perhaps they won’t the next time someone reports them because of the prior report. If, on the other hand, your report is “founded”, this vouches for your child’s credibility in the event he or she has to report another unwitnessed bullying incident. Thus, reporting is needed even if the end result is your receipt of a report that thanks you for your cooperation and assures you that they did a comprehensive investigation and took steps appropriate to the findings. Yep, that is what you usually get – a final report that tells you nothing, won’t disclose what discipline was provided, IF ANY (which is confidential), and gives you NO RELIEF AT ALL.
Again, however, while you may not get the relief you were hoping for (yes, I know you are all readers of the bible which espoused an “eye for an eye”), it is still important to go through the process so that schools no longer simply assume “we hear nothing, therefore we have no problem”. At the same time, the end result will likely be the same. It is time to work with administration to providing a more global anti bullying and tolerance program that will hopefully reduce the incidence of bullying in the future. Stay tuned to part 4 of this series for ideas on how to work with the administration to foster the type of global citizenship we should be aiming for in today’s youth.
November 1, 2013
IQ Testing: Should I Say No?
January 11, 2012
What's in a Label? When a Rose By Any Other Name May Not Be a Rose.