December 9, 2012

Activists push for statewide anti-bullying policies

Inspired in part by a recent protest over alleged bullying at a Haysville high school, some parents and at least one state education official say they plan to continue the fight for a statewide anti-bullying policy.

Inspired in part by a recent protest over alleged bullying at a Haysville high school, some parents and at least one state education official say they plan to continue the fight for a statewide anti-bullying policy.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. There’s a firestorm, actually,” said Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas Board of Education who has lobbied more than three years for tougher, more standardized measures against bullying in schools.

“The response (from school district officials) so far has been, ‘It’s fine. Don’t worry. We’re covered,’ and that’s not even close to reality,” Chappell said. “We need to do something to secure the safety of children, and yet we can’t get past the denial stage.”

He plans to resurrect the issue during the state board’s meeting this week in Topeka.

Chappell and other anti-bullying advocates also plan to reintroduce a bill in the Kansas Legislature that would expand the definition of bullying and cyberbullying. The measure would require schools to investigate reports of bullying within a short time frame, use state-mandated disciplinary options and report bullying incidents to the state.

A state law passed in 2007 requires districts to implement anti-bullying plans that include training and education for staff and students, but it does not dictate how districts should handle or track reports of bullying.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, says his group opposed a measure drafted by Chappell and debated by the Senate Education Committee earlier this year because it would have burdened school districts with more work they neither have the staff nor the money to handle.

“We could require more reporting, more paperwork, more things to turn in than ever before. But I’ve not seen any evidence that suggests those things actually make the situation better,” Tallman said.

“This is one of a long list of places and issues where people feel our schools aren’t doing well enough. ‘Why aren’t they taking care of this?’ ” he said. “The challenge is, how do you balance those needs with all the other needs?”

Rick Morawitz, a Wichita father whose 14-year-old daughter committed suicide in 2011 after allegedly being bullied at school and online, now lobbies for more stringent anti-bullying legislation.

His daughter Rhianna’s memorial Facebook page has become a place where students and parents post messages about being bullied or stories of witnessing bullying at their schools.

Morawitz said he favors a statewide policy that would more specifically dictate how schools should handle reports of bullying, when they should inform parents and what consequences students found to be bullying should face.

Precisely what those procedures and consequences should be, though, are unclear.

“Even after everything we’ve been through, I can straight up tell you I don’t have all the answers,” Morawitz said.

“I don’t know what they need to do. But I know it’s a problem everywhere, and there really needs to be statewide” guidelines, he said. “If you leave it to each district to set up their own rules, they might or they might not.”

Miranda and Justin Miller, the parents of a 14-year-old Campus High School student, led a protest in front of the school last week, saying their daughter was severely bullied and that school officials did not respond appropriately.

A group of about 50 Campus students staged a counterprotest nearby, holding signs that read “Honk if you love Campus” and chanting, “Campus is safe.”

Miranda Miller said school officials recently agreed to transfer her daughter to an alternative high school — a move she said they initially denied because the girl is a freshman. Her daughter, who had threatened suicide, is doing better and is seeing a counselor, she said.

But Miller plans to join statewide anti-bullying efforts, saying she has heard from parents in Haysville and elsewhere who say bullying often goes unreported or is “brushed off as kids being kids.”

Liz Hames, spokeswoman for Haysville public schools, said she couldn’t talk specifically about incidents involving the Millers’ daughter — a common response from school officials, who are bound by student-privacy regulations.

But she said Haysville has instituted several anti-bullying education and prevention measures and takes the problem seriously.

Handbooks for Haysville students and parents, for example, clearly define bullying and list potential consequences. Depending on the incident, consequences may include temporary removal from the classroom, loss of privileges, suspension or expulsion.

Last school year, Haysville schools logged 97 incidents of bullying, Hames said. The district has about 5,200 students.

As a comparison, Wichita, the state’s largest school district with more than 50,000 students, logged 356 incidents of reported bullying last year — 124 in elementary schools and 232 in secondary schools.

Chappell, who will leave the state board in January after an unsuccessful re-election bid, said he wants his board colleagues to discuss the issue again but doubts they will.

Earlier this year, board chairman David Dennis called proposed legislation a “monstrosity” and said constituents complained that school districts would have to hire additional staff members just to keep up with bullying-report paperwork.

Chappell said he plans to continue and ramp up his efforts after leaving the board.

“We have state standards for all sorts of things — for math or for English or whatever,” he said. “I’m saying we should have at least minimum standards for safety and … protecting children.”

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