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School officials shouldering the load

New bullying legislation puts much more responsibility on administrators

TIGER PERFORMS an anti-bullying presentation for students in kindergarten through third grade at Alton Central School. The TIGER presentation at Alton Central School is part of a multi-pronged effort by Principal Bonnie Jean Kuras to educate her students about bullying. Weston Sager. (click for larger version)
October 06, 2010
REGION — New bullying legislation passed the New Hampshire legislature and was signed into law by Gov. John Lynch last summer, adding additional conditions for preventing and reporting bullying in public schools.

What does this mean? For one thing, a whole lot more responsibility for school administrators across the state.

The original version of the "Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act" was passed in 2000, making New Hampshire just the second state to pass anti-bullying legislation. Still, some said it did not provide strict enough guidelines for bullying.

The amended law, however, is much more detailed, with 14 explicit points for school administrators to follow. The new legislation requires schools to have a written anti-bullying statement, a procedure for reporting bullying, strict timelines for processing bullying incidents, and exhaustive training programs for students, teachers, staff and parents.

The updated law is designed, in part, to help prevent serious instances of bullying that have led to student violence and even suicide in the past.

The law defines "bullying" as "a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents" that "physically harms a pupil or damages a pupil's property," "causes emotional distress," "interferes with a pupil's education opportunities," "creates a hostile educational environment" or "substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school." It also "shall include action motivated by an imbalance of power" based on a pupil's distinguishing characteristics.

With such a wide net cast by this definition, every school administrator is expecting a dramatic increase in the number of reported bullying cases. At the same time, it presents school administrators with the challenge about how to succinctly define bullying.

Alton Central School Principal Bonnie Jean Kuras sees "bullying" as hinging upon the "imbalance of power" between pupils, although she said it could also include other incidents of misbehavior. Kathy Cuddy-Egbert, Assistant Superintendent for the Governor Wentworth Regional School District, which oversees New Durham Elementary School and Kingswood Regional High School and Middle School, agreed with Kuras' definition. She said that the "imbalance of power" is the foundation of bullying, albeit with notable exceptions.

But John Houlihan, Assistant Principal of Prospect Mountain High School, sees bullying as a broader category, wherein an "imbalance of power" is not the lynchpin of the policy. Rather, he believes "bullying" could include incidents of what has been called simply "misbehavior."

School administrators such as Barnstead Elementary Principal Tim Rice are careful to tiptoe around their true opinion of the new legislation, but one thing is for certain: it requires a lot more paperwork and record keeping for already overburdened school principals and vice principals.

"It's a lot of time [adapting to the new legislation]," said Kuras.

Said Houlihan, "It (the new legislation) adds to the documentation of it all."

Not only will school administrators have to report the number of "significant" bullying incidents at the end of the school year, they also have to keep detailed records of every bullying report filed by students, teachers or parents.

These forms a description of the incident itself and the contact information of the person reporting the incident, the people involved and the parents of both the bully and the victim.

"Every school is going to have to respond more vigorously than before," Rice said.

Thorough record keeping is critical, however, to protect schools from liability. The law states that so long as the school administrators make a "good faith" effort to enforce the legislation, they are immune from lawsuits pertaining to bullying. Administrators believe that extensive forms are the primary means of establishing this "good faith" requirement.

But because the legislation is so new, it has yet to be seen what exactly will happen should a school not follow all of the law's tenants; there is nothing explicit mentioned about the consequences for noncompliance. Cuddy-Egbert believes they will only know once the law has been tested in court.

Each of the schools in the area (Prospect Mountain High School, New Durham Elementary, Barnstead Elementary and Alton Central School) already had a comprehensive anti-bullying policy in place well before the updated law was passed. Now, however, they are altering their policies in order to best reflect the new legislation.

But each said they are not changing their anti-bullying policies significantly. And for people concerned with bullying in public schools, that's a good thing: it means that each school in the area was already aware of the problem.

"We've always been very active at discouraging bullying," said Cuddy-Egbert.

Despite the added workload for principals and superintendents brought about by the new legislation, some are optimistic that it will end up improving how schools react to bullying.

"The legislation is for us to be more hyper-vigilant," Kuras said. "It's making us more accountable."

Houlihan agreed, saying that the legislation does what it sets out to do by "forcing" adult accountability.

"Ultimately, it does [help the kids]," he said.

But Houlihan was not without reservations. He fears an increase in anti-bullying efforts at Prospect Mountain High School may "drive things underground."

Efforts to comply with the new law go beyond new policy making. At a recent tour of the school, Kuras pointed out all of the efforts to inform the students about bullying. These included posters in the hallways and cafeteria, teacher-led bullying discussions, and special presentations by quasi-theatrical groups such as TIGER (Theater Integrating Guidance, Education and Responsibility) out of Plymouth State University. Barnstead Elementary has welcomed the McDonald's Corporation to present about the dangers of bullying this fall and the Governor Wentworth Regional School District is planning a region-spanning anti-bullying tour.

Kuras herself is organizing seminars to educate students, teachers, school staff, administrators and parents before the law goes into full effect on Jan. 1, 2011. Rice, Cuddy-Egbert and Houlihan said they have each done similar things for their respective schools. Every one believes it will help to promote communication between the schools and the parents.

But even with the new "scripted" guidelines for preventing and reporting bullying, each person interviewed was stumped about how to best crack down on "cyberbullying" — a new category included in the new legislation.

"Cyberbullying" is defined in the law as bullying carried out by electronic devices and programs such as e-mail, text messages or social networking Web sites such as facebook.com or myspace.com.

The main problem with "cyberbullying" is its wide scope, the school administrators said. Since electronic devices are used in school, on buses and in the home, "cyberbulling" could happen anywhere, anytime. And because schools are now held accountable for incidents that occur outside school grounds but negatively impact behavior within the classroom, all cyberbullying is potentially the school's problem no matter where it occurs.

Kuras knows that "cyberbullying" has the potential to be the "most damaging" form of bullying due to its prevalence and propensity for vicious comments. She said that because e-mail and blog posts are faceless, students are more likely to say outrageous and graphic things.

In order to catch "cyberbullying," administrators are relying on the information coming to them since they are not allowed to (nor want to) monitor their students' cell phones and computers. As a partial solution to the problem, they have each prohibited the use of cell phones during the school day.

But because cyberbullying can occur at home, schools are relying on parents to "responsibly report" incidents when they see it. Rice and Houlihan advised parents to know what their sons and daughters are doing when at their computers or on their cell phones.

Administrators are hoping that parents will contribute to the effort to crack down on bullying inside and outside the school.

"It can't just be one group doing a lot of legwork," said Rice. "We have to get the parents involved."

New legislation or not, the school administrators remain serious about their efforts to discourage bullying in schools.

"If we lose one kid to bullying, that's one too many," said Cuddy-Egbert.

Bullying information sessions

The Barnstead School District will be having a public information session about the new bullying legislation at the next school board meeting on Oct. 12, 6 p.m. at the Barnstead Elementary School library.

Continue reading The Baysider for more information about additional upcoming bullying information sessions.

Weston Sager can be reached at 569-3126 or wsager@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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