It's one thing for schools to say they don't condone bullying, says Thomas Witt. It's another thing for them to enforce anti-bullying policies and for students to feel safe.
"The only thing that's going to reach kids is if they know their schools are safe environments," said Witt, chairman of the Kansas Equality Coalition, which champions civil rights for gays and lesbians.
"They need to know that if there are incidents, that those will be reported and that an administrator is going to act on them — that someone is accountable."
Today the State Board of Education will discuss whether schools are doing enough to combat bullying and whether there should be a stronger statewide anti-bullying policy.
The issue was prompted in part by a series of tragedies across the country in which children and teens committed suicide after they were bullied or harassed because peers believed they were gay.
It also was raised by board member Walt Chappell, who says many schools have problems with bad behavior, violence and bullying. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights recently reminded school districts that they have the responsibility to eliminate any hostile environment and prevent harassment.
"There is enough attention about it in our state and also across the country that we needed to bring it back before the board," said Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker.
A 2008 Kansas law already requires local school boards to adopt policies to combat bullying and to provide training and education for staff and students.
Wichita — the state's largest district, with more than 50,000 students — has since revised its anti-bullying policy to add protected classes, including gay and lesbian students, and to prohibit cyber-bullying.
The state board is unlikely to take action today. "It's just on the table to see if we want to go any further with it," DeBacker said.
Chappell said Kansas should consider statewide standards for student behavior, track incidents of violence and bullying more carefully and set benchmarks for how administrators should deal with those incidents.
"We've got to make sure our kids are safe and that our teachers are also," said Chappell, a former teacher.
"Think about video games, television, football, all the ways we teach our kids it's OK to be violent. Then we're surprised when some kids just don't get it.... Our schools have to be a safe place to come and study and learn."
Chappell supports what he calls a "hierarchy of standards and consequences" that would go beyond the state's current anti-bullying law. He pointed to a dramatic increase in the incidents of battery, bullying, suspensions and expulsions statewide since 2007.
"I'm afraid that's just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
School officials in Wichita and elsewhere say the increase could be the result of more widespread education about bullying, which in turn can lead to more reporting of bad behavior.
"It's an educational process," said Debbie McKenna, executive director of safety services for Wichita schools. "Kids and adults both have to see and learn what the (bullying) behavior is and that it's not accepted."
Chappell pointed to a recent incident in Hutchinson, where a 14-year-old high school student allegedly was tied up with a jump rope by other students and left in the school's weight room. Police are investigating the case as a juvenile battery.
"I'm not saying all our schools are unsafe. I'm saying there are some problems, and some are very serious, and those need to be addressed," he said.
Witt, of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said he knows bullying doesn't affect only gay and lesbian students. And he applauded Wichita schools for the strides they've taken to combat bullying.
But, "I absolutely hear from teenagers who don't feel it's safe to go to their administrators" with concerns about being harassed, he said.
"Like anything else, things aren't going to change in some of these school districts unless there's some pressure on them to change," he said. "Standards and accountability would be a start."