More than a year after adopting new, state-mandated anti-bullying regulations — including a requirement to report all instances of bullying or related behavior — teachers and administrators at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School say they are already seeing positive effects in the school community.
While bullying is a rare occurrence, school leaders said, students have warmed to the new rules, which have created a more considerate environment at the school and helped quell burgeoning conflicts.
“The law has been extremely helpful in getting the message across to students about what constitutes bullying,” high school principal Steve Nixon told the Gazette this week. Some students might perceive an action as teasing or joking around, he said, but if it’s repeated behavior, it’s bullying. “Understanding the definition is a big part — students are much more aware,” Mr. Nixon said.
Two years ago Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation that prohibits bullying and cyber bullying in all public and private schools, requiring schools to adopt formal bullying prevention and intervention plans by the end of 2010.
School staff members are required to immediately report instances of bullying or harassment that they witness or become aware of, at which point an investigation takes place. Schools are also required to provide staff members with ongoing information about preventing, identifying and responding to bullying, and to report bullying data to the state.
Mr. Nixon said this week he has seen the benefits of the program, though only the most severe reports reach his desk. In the vast majority of cases, he said the reported behavior does not constitute bullying.
School adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois, who takes incident reports from students, was trained along with three other faculty at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. On Tuesday morning this week, she and assistant principal Matthew Malowski talked to parents about the bullying policies during coffee with the principal, an informal monthly gathering of parents and school leaders.
Ms. Lilavois told the parents that at first she was nervous about the new regulations, “because guidance is a safe place where kids can come and talk about what they want to talk about.” But she said students are readily coming forward to report incidents.
Students, teachers, parents and staff are asked to fill out a bullying prevention and intervention incident reporting form, which can be filed anonymously, though no disciplinary action will be taken solely on the basis of an anonymous report.
Incidents outside of school, including harassment via text message, e-mail, Facebook or Twitter, become the school’s responsibility when reported.
After a report, Mr. Malowski said a school investigator looks into the matter, talking to the aggressor, the target and any witnesses. If the school concludes the incident is bullying, parents are called on all sides, and the result can be discipline against the aggressor ranging from warnings to suspensions to expulsion.
Bullying is defined as repeated use (three or more) by one or more students of a written, verbal, or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture directed at a target that creates a hostile environment at school, causes physical or emotional harm and infringes on the rights of the target and disrupts their education process. This includes cyber bullying.
The new guidelines supplement programs already in place at the school, including the Peer Outreach program, which teaches a group of students to support fellow students.
Mr. Malowski told parents that there were approximately 80 incident reports when the guidelines first went into effect, during the second school semester last year. Most of the reports, about 80 to 90 per cent, were found to be non-issues or a mutual disagreement between two students, he said. All reports are kept to track repeat behavior.
So far during this school year, he said there have been 70 reports.
But beyond the reports, Mr. Malowski said there has been a change in the school atmosphere and student behavior. “It wasn’t uncommon to hear swearing in the hall, really derogatory remarks in the hall,” he said. “That’s not happening anymore.”
While some parents at the morning coffee meeting expressed concern about students solving conflicts on their own, or about whether the reports go into permanent files, parent Jennifer Estabrook said she thought the program had been good for students.
“It sounds to me like this has gone a long way toward bringing this to kids’ awareness, in terms of how they’re treating one another,” she said.
Ms. Lilavois later agreed. “Many kids have had their eyes opened and are listening to what’s going on,” she told the Gazette. The most important thing, she said, is supporting students and letting them know that adults are watching out for them.
Just earlier that day, she said a student had come to her office with a friend who had been skeptical about reporting a problem. The three had a conversation, Ms. Lilavois said, and the situation was serious and a report filed. It was a “picture perfect moment,” she said. The friend told the other student, “You don’t deserve to be treated this way,” and took action.
Part of the change in culture, the counselor said, is encouraging students not to be passive bystanders if they see a serious situation unfolding.
While bullying is a buzzword right now, that term only refers to the “worst of the worst,” she said. Other sources of conflict — such as defriending someone on Facebook — is just typical teenage behavior.
“Kids have to be able to deal with their own conflicts,” she said, but bullying relies on an imbalance of power between the aggressor and the target. The reporting system allows adults to intervene when needed.
“If it’s affecting their lives, they are not able to focus in school because this stuff is going on,” Ms. Lilavois said.
Michael McCarthy, the high school guidance director, said every staff member in the school has gone through training about how to identify and report bullying. The new policy is a “30-second” rule, which calls for teachers to immediately report incidents.
In the past, he said, teachers might address conflicts or instances of bullying in class. But the reporting system allows the school to look for multiple instances by the same student.
“At first, going through the law, I was a little bit concerned about the impact it might have on the volume of reporting,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But it’s gone quite well, and I think kids are getting the message and understanding what outcome will be coming at them.”
To guide the students through the new process, Ms. Lilavois and others staged a play for freshman, with upper classmen acting out the new reporting process, a way of letting new students know that bullying is “not acceptable in our school,” Mr. McCarthy said.
“Honestly I don’t see it as a big problem,” he added, noting that the school is now addressing behavior before it can escalate and getting to problems much sooner because of the reporting by the teachers.
“Kids who are getting harassed feel like there is a place to go now. They feel like someone is going actually going to do something about it. I feel like that’s actually getting into our culture . . . learning how behavior impacts others.”
One sophomore who did not want her name used described her own positive experiences with reporting incidents. “I know if I go talk to Amy about it, she has to file a report,” the student said. “I’m okay with that. I actually like it. You know something good will come out of it.”