Bullying reports in schools may increase due to new bullying law

Published 2:27 pm Thursday, September 22, 2016

School districts across the Commonwealth can expect an increase in bullying reports as a result of Kentucky’s new bullying law.
Senate Bill 228, which went into effect July 15, requires districts to report every incident of bullying, regardless of the outcome.
“You’re probably going to see your bullying incidents rise,” KSBA Director of Policy and eMeeting Services Katrina Kinman said. “As a board member, when you start seeing your safe school reports or discipline reports, if the councils provide those, you’re going to see increased numbers of bullying, whether it’s actual bullying per se or not.”
The legislation was a result of an anti-bullying task force appointed by then-Gov. Steve Beshear in 2015. The new law replaces House Bill 98, which was passed in 2008 and addressed bullying without calling it bullying.
“The fact that a definition wasn’t established was problematic for many,” said Don Martin (left), training coordinator for the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
The law requires the new definition be included in the student code of conduct.
“We need to make sure we’re complying with that part of the legislation when we get back to school, that the student code of conduct that we are reviewing with our kids reflects the new definition, and we do a decent job of explaining that,” Martin said.
“The new definition leads to differing interpretations as to its implementation.”
SB 228 defines bullying and hazing as any unwanted verbal, physical or social behavior among students that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has the potential to be repeated.
“There’s going to be a lot more questions than there are answers,” Martin said. He added that the definition opens up a can of worms because “perceived and potential are words that are difficult to standardize and regulate. It’s going to be up to individual administrators as to how to interpret the language.” 
Martin recommends each district come up with a four- or five-point rubric to help navigate the changes. He said, for example, if an incident has a chance to be repeated, it could be a level one, but a situation where two students are involved in an incident that is perceived as a one-time occurrence, could be classified at the bottom level.
“The law doesn’t say you should do that; there’s no procedure that says you should do that, this is just my opinion,” Martin said. “I think it would be beneficial.”
Martin said school districts must train students that bullying will not be tolerated, and that staff and students committing such misconduct should be disciplined. Districts can be held liable for failure to address the situation.
“We need to make sure that when we have allegations, we must investigate,,” Martin said.
According to Kinman, KSBA gave school boards the Employee Reports of Criminal Activity policy when the original bullying bill passed in 2008. Districts need to use that for internal tracking of what was done after the bullying was reported and what discipline was applied.
KSBA also included the new bullying definition in its 2016 annual policy updates. 
“Employees are to take reasonable and prudent action involving student welfare and safety. Employees are expected to – and in certain cases they have to – report bullying and hazing to law enforcement. And/or if it rises to the level of the federally protected areas, then you’re talking harassment and discrimination policies and that’s a whole different set of reporting requirements,” Kinman said.
Districts need to be aware of bullying that occurs on school premises, on school-sponsored transportation, at a school-sponsored event, or outside of school if it disrupts the education process.
Martin noted that cyberbullying that happens between kids off campus might need to be investigated by districts in certain situations. “If the cyberbullying takes place on a school-issued computer, it definitely meets the criteria that the school needs to intervene.”
The law says the definition of bullying shall not be interpreted to prohibit civil exchange of opinions or debate, or cultural practices protected under the state or federal constitution where the opinion expressed does not otherwise materially or substantially disrupt the education process.
Martin said districts can request a safe school assessment of their schools by the Kentucky Center for School Safety. The assessment looks at bullying issues, physical issues, building and grounds issues, climate and culture, and visitor procedures.
“The best way we can deal with this obviously is to do the best job we can to prevent it in the first place,” Martin said. “To avoid excess reporting, we must do as much as possible in preventing it from occurring in the first place.”
For more information on the bullying bill, along with strategies and resources, go to http://www.kycss.org/bullying.php.

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