What Should Your School’s Bullying Policy Look Like?

What Should Your School’s Bullying Policy Look Like?

We are regularly contacted by school administrators, board members, parents and others with questions about school bullying policies. In fact, a few months ago the principal at my son’s elementary school asked me to review their bullying policy. I am always happy to help, with the preemptive caveat that I am not a lawyer and therefore my feedback should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive. But I have seen lots of bullying policies over the last 15 years. And some are plainly better than others.

In an effort to better understand the landscape of bullying policies across the United States, Sameer and I (along with one of my students) recently reviewed all of the state model bullying policies that we could find (they are usually put out by a state’s Department of Education). We were able to locate model policies for thirty-nine states. When we couldn’t find a model policy for a state, we reviewed their state law to see if certain provisions were required in school bullying policies. Schools aren’t generally required to adopt the specific language offered in a model policy, but no doubt these policies serve as a template for schools in the state and deviating from them in substantial ways could open a school up to criticism.

In my home state of Wisconsin, every public school is required to have a bullying policy. There are no stipulations, however, regarding what must be included in that policy. I often point out (with much consternation) that Wisconsin is one of only two states in the US that does not mention cyberbullying or electronic forms of harassment in its bullying law (Want to know the other state? See our table here.). As much as Wisconsin state law is substandard when it comes to bullying, the model bullying policy put out by our Department of Public Instruction is pretty decent. At least it specifically references “cyberbullying.” But again, schools aren’t required to adopt that policy, or any of its particular protocols. And while most schools that I have worked with in Wisconsin (and elsewhere in the US) have acceptable bullying policies, some fall short.

So what does a good bullying policy look like? Below are some elements that should be considered in any comprehensive school bullying policy.

Clear Definition of Bullying

First and foremost, bullying policies must clearly define what bullying is. And it needs to be defined in a way that everyone involved can understand. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, or that “everyone knows what bullying is.” But that is not the case. Ask three different people to define bullying and you will likely get three different answers. It is important to remember that not all hurtful behavior between students is bullying (sometimes it is better characterized as conflict, drama, a disagreement, or even something more serious like assault). And while there is a debate among scholars about how best to define bullying, most agree that it is intentional, repeated, hurtful behavior where the target lacks the power to defend him or herself. To be sure, any hurtful action directed toward someone is something that needs to be addressed (whether intentional or not), but that doesn’t mean it is accurate to refer to them all as “bullying.” Admittedly, there is a lack of consensus about whether a single, isolated incident could be characterized as bullying. Even some state laws and policies define bullying in a way that can include a single incident. I disagree with this for reasons too detailed to get into now, but suffice it to say your policy should clearly articulate what is meant by “bullying.”

BULLYING means the use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof directed at a student that:

a. Causes physical or emotional harm to the student or damage to the student’s property;
b. Places the student in reasonable fear of harm to himself/herself or of damage to his/her property;
c. Creates an intimidating, threatening, hostile, or abusive educational environment for the student;
d. Infringes on the rights of the student to participate in school activities; or
e. Materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.

Bullying most often occurs as repeated behavior and often is not a single incident between the bullying/cyber‐bullying offender(s) and the bullying victim(s).

Rhode Island Model Bullying Policy

All of the 39 state model policies we found included a formal definition of bullying. There is one state (Arizona), which does not offer a model policy or appear to offer a definition of bullying anywhere in state law. I guess they assume that millions of people in Arizona all know exactly what they mean by bullying. Most—but not all!—of the model bullying policies mentioned cyberbullying (34 out of 39). It is important to define bullying in a way that includes all the types of behaviors you intend to address under the policy. If the policy doesn’t mention cyberbullying, then it will be more difficult to deal with when it happens.

Investigation and Reporting Procedures

Bullying policies should outline reporting mechanisms (if I am being bullied, how–and to whom–do I report it?) and investigation protocols (whose responsibility is it to investigate the allegations?). All interested parties (students, educators, parents) need to know the process that will be followed when there is a bullying incident. And this process needs to be followed closely to avoid perceptions of favoritism, ambivalence, or inconsistency. Who specifically will be responsible for conducting the preliminary investigation? Under what circumstances will law enforcement officers be brought in?

Some states require schools to report all incidents of bullying to their state Department of Education. If this is the case in your state, whose job is it to collect and submit this information? I’ve always wondered how valid reports like this are. In New Jersey, for example, 23% of school districts reported zero incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying in the 2015-16 school year. I find it very difficult to believe that nearly one-quarter of schools in the state had no bullying all year.

It is also important for schools to give students easy avenues to report bullying or other problems that impact their ability to learn and feel safe at school. We know from our research that students are generally reluctant to come forward with their experiences, and so educators need to make it simple and painless. We’ve written about setting up anonymous reporting systems (and even wrote a guide on how to use Google Voice at no cost to allow students to anonymously tell you about their safety concerns). Of course this is just the first step. Schools need to follow through on all reports and make sure that the bullying stops and the targeted student is supported.

[School administrator] will conduct a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of all reports of bullying and harassment using the bullying and harassment incident investigation form within three days after the report to ensure the safety of all students involved. Any individuals who were bullied, individuals who bullied and bystanders will be separated and asked to provide information about the incident. The investigation will also include a review of any previous complaints involving either the individual(s) who was (were) bullied or the individual(s) who bullied. The investigation procedure will vary depending on the nature of the reported incidence. All information gathered during the investigation will be submitted to [compliance officer] and will remain confidential. The findings from the investigation will be used by school administrators to determine the appropriate response procedure.

Kansas Model Bullying Policy

Range of Response Options

Schools need to make sure that their bullying policy includes language that all instances of bullying will be subject to appropriate and relevant discipline, even those that occur away from school or at a school-sponsored event, if such behaviors substantially and materially disrupt the learning environment at school or interfere with the ability of other students to learn or feel safe at school (more on this next). Schools should list examples of graduated consequences and remedial actions for rule violations. The policy should include a range of disciplinary responses (from a meeting with the principal, to detention or suspension), and point out that the response will be commensurate with the potential or actual harm or disruption caused. Having a number of specific examples in the policy will serve to make students and parents aware of possible penalties. There should be no surprises about what could happen if you participate in bullying.

Consequences and appropriate remedial actions for anyone who commits one or more acts of harassment, bullying, or other acts of violent behavior may range from positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension or expulsion, as set forth in the Board of Education’s approved code of conduct. Remedial measures shall be designed to:

• Correct the problem behavior;
• Prevent other occurrences of the behavior; and
• Protect the complainant of the act.

Tennessee Model Bullying Policy

See more tips directed at responding to cyberbullying here.

Off-Campus Behaviors

School officials are often uncertain about whether they can intervene in bullying behaviors that occur away from school. This is generally the case when it comes to cyberbullying (which typically occurs when school is not in session), but could also include any problem between students that creates issues at school. I’ve written a lot about this issue over the years and while I feel like progress has been made when it comes to a better understanding of the factors to consider when determining if a school response is appropriate, many still do not recognize the circumstances where schools can or should take action. Case law is fairly clear that schools can discipline students for off-campus behaviors when those behaviors are having an impact at school. Despite this, only 28 of the 39 model bullying policies put forth by states across our country included specific reference to off-campus behaviors. This is better than state law, as only 17 state bullying laws mention off-campus incidents. It is critical for schools to detail the rules against–and consequences for–off-campus behaviors in their policies. In chapter 5 of our book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard we offer the following recommended policy language:

“Schools have the authority and responsibility to apply reasonable and educationally-based discipline, consistent with a pupil’s constitutionally granted privileges, to bullying that: (a) Occurs on, or is delivered to, school property or a school-sponsored activity or event on or off school property; or (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, creates a hostile environment for that pupil or others, or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.”

Prevention Strategies

What are you doing as a school to prevent bullying from happening in the first place? There are a number of evidence-based prevention activities that have shown promise to reduce the incidence of bullying at school, including those that utilize social and emotional learning principles and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Moreover, many of the most effective programs involve empowering bystanders to take action. Overall, a positive school climate where students and staff work collaboratively to solve problems has been shown to alleviate bullying issues both at school and online. The truth is, you don’t need a pre-packaged formal anti-bullying curriculum, but you do need to specify what steps you will take to improve peer relationships and student well-being, and to create an overall sense of connectedness and belongingness at school.

“Positive Sustained School Climate” is the foundation for learning and positive youth development and includes:

-Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically safe;
-People who treat one another with dignity, and are engaged and respected;
-A school community that works collaboratively together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision;
-Adults who model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning; and
-A school community that contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.

Connecticut Model Bullying Policy

In addition to engaging in prevention programming, it is key to let everyone know what you are doing so that they can be supported. How will members of the school community learn about your stance on bullying (or even about the content of the bullying policy)? If students don’t know what bullying is, or what consequences could follow, how can we expect to deter the behavior? Similarly, if school staff aren’t aware of the details of the bullying policy, how can we expect them to respond when they see or are made aware of bullying? Formal educational efforts about this can take place within the classroom or in larger all-grade or all-school assemblies, and informal conversations can be had about behavioral standards and expectations whenever the opportunity presents itself. The key to preventing bullying, though, is to bring it up regularly and consistently over the course of the whole school year. A single lesson or presentation at the beginning of the year will not be enough. Your policy should discuss the myriad ways the school will work to prevent bullying throughout the year.

See more tips directed at preventing cyberbullying here.

Final Thoughts

When is the last time you looked over your school’s bullying policy? Do you really know what is included? Is it easily accessible to students, parents, and staff members (such as posted on the school’s website)? My challenge to you is to take a moment to find and read the policy. You might think you know what is in it, but you also might be surprised at what isn’t. If you have questions about the policy, connect with the appropriate decision-makers (school administrators and board members) to discuss any concerns. A formal committee at your school should undertake a regular review of your policy to make sure it is keeping up with developments in student behaviors. Moreover, policies should not be created or modified in a vacuum. Educators should include parents and students in the development and review of the bullying policy. That way everyone is on the same page regarding how bullying will be handled across your community. Preventing bullying requires a coordinated community effort in which everyone has a role.

As far as we can tell, 39 states have prepared model bullying policies. You can see all of them here. If you are in one of the states not listed here but are aware of a model policy that we missed, please let us know.

Image from Ryan Jacobson (@rcjphoto) on Unsplash

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