HCS adopts new anti-bullying policy

HALEYVILLE  - Several questions and concerns were expressed about the newly revised anti-bullying policy, adopted by the Haleyville Board of Education in accordance with state guidelines.
During a work session for the board July 23, Haleyville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland began by discussing with board members a concern expressed to her in the policy about exclusion of students.
“With all bullying policies, there are things where you have to use professional judgment,” Sutherland said.
“So, if a kid one time doesn’t get played with on the playground, of course, that’s not a bullying episode and exclusion,” she gave as an example.
The school system has had a bullying policy, but the new policy, entitled the Jamari Terrell Williams Student Bullying Prevention Act Policy,  was passed in accordance with state requirements, noted Susan Riggs, director of student services for HCS.
Riggs explained the policy was named in honor of Williams, a  student from another school system who committed suicide after being bullied.
“When I was a teacher, when I was a principal, we would have kids who said they were bullied and parents would be upset,” Riggs said. “A lot of times I would dig down into it  and it was because someone didn’t play with them on the playground or because they weren’t friends with them.
“On the other hand, there were times when it was real, so we take it very seriously.  To me, we have needed something like this which totally defines it,” Riggs added.
Therefore, the state department set out a model anti-bullying policy for school systems to adopt.
Riggs took that model, updated it and presented it to the board for their consideration at the work session.
The updated portions of the policy included a section about reporting bullying incidents, such as the person to whom the  bullying incident was reported, the date and description of the incident.
Riggs also added to the policy an administrator form, where administrators can make official documentation of the incident to the extent of giving specific information and witnesses.
“As an administrator, you may see 20 kids in a day and you may not remember it, so I put a place for them to document what they need to document,” Riggs noted.
When discussing the actual description of bullying, Riggs directed board members’ attention to the common forms of bullying,  such as verbal, social,  physical and cyber bullying.
“Being excluded is a form of bullying if it’s done in a way as a harassment to make a child feel unsafe, unwanted,” said Riggs. “They have to feel a threat is what constitutes the actual bullying.
“But that threat can be through exclusion. So, it’s one of these gray areas like most areas are. Most of what I do is gray, but when you look at a  bullying policy, we have to include everything it could be.  Then we have to use our professional judgment as administrators as to what is bullying once we’ve  called all the witnesses in and done everything we need to do as far as administrators,” Riggs continued.
The definition of bullying, according to the policy, is a continuous pattern of intentional behavior on or off school property, on a school bus or at a school sponsored function.
This bullying is included, but not limited to, cyberbullying or written, electronic, verbal or physical actions that are reasonably perceived as being motivated by the pattern of behavior to do the following:
• Place a student in reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property;
• Substantially interfere with the educational performance, opportunities or benefits of a student;
• Substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school;
• Create a hostile environment in the school, on school property, on a school bus or a school-sponsored function;
• The action is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, threatening  or abusive educational environment for a student.
“I saw this list and I thought, ‘Well, I couldn’t go to lunch with anybody anymore,” spoke out Board Member Barry Burleson, “because I do every one of these things on a daily basis, so it’s all in how it’s interpreted and who it’s interpreted by.”
Burleson recalled that his son got in trouble for social bullying for taking a picture of a student eating mashed potatoes and posting it.
“They showed it to his girlfriend, and he was devastated,” Burleson said. “So, there’s a fine line. Why don’t you just list verbal bullying, social bullying, physical bullying, cyberbullying. Don’t break it down into categories.
“You tell me a kid in this school or a kid you’ve ever had, a kid that’s your kid that doesn’t tease,”  Burleson added.
“That’s why we added the administrator page (to the policy),” Sutherland said, “because before there wasn’t really a place for you to say this was investigated and it wasn’t found to be bullying.  It really didn’t give us the opportunity to say after investigating, talking to these children, talking to this teacher, we did not find this to be bullying.”
“There (before) was really no documentation for us to say that’s really not bullying because there wasn’t any place to write that,” Sutherland pointed out.
“Then a parent would say, well you didn’t take it seriously...so if we can pull that sheet out and say  we really did, and these other five people said we were just kidding around. We shouldn’t have done it. We didn’t mean it that way.
“That at least gives us some way to explain what happened,” Sutherland said. “You’re right. It can be gray, all of it.”
“An intimidating text message or rumors by email,” Burleson responded. “Rumors.”
Dr. William Bishop, director of administrative services for HCS, then spoke out, saying that administrators have to get involved with bullying incidents most of the time after the case is investigated to see whether or not the situation would constitute actual bullying.
“It’s not a bullying thing just because you are excluding somebody...If it’s a one-time incident, that doesn’t make it bullying,” Bishop stated. “It has to be an ongoing process.”
“If I tell my kid I don’t want him inviting your kid to our birthday...” Burleson said.
Bishop and Sutherland then said, “That’s not bullying.”
 “Mrs. Riggs, those guidelines came from the state department,” noted Board President Donna Jones.
“This is the model they recommended us to use,” Riggs responded.
“It has to create a hostile environment, a disruption of the school,” Riggs continued. “There’s several factors like that.
“Barry, it’s not just that they would be excluded and be considered bullying.  It has to create some kind of hostile environment, a disruption of the school, something that is severe enough that would constitute bullying,” Riggs continued.
“What if I’m at home, and I  put something on Facebook and a kids shows it at school?” Burleson then asked.
“In something like that, we get the parent involved and tell them, depending on the age group,” Sutherland said, referring to the exact nature of the threat.
For instance, if a student, away from school, threatens to shoot another student, then law enforcement would get involved, she said.
“If (a threat) happened at home, and they get in a fight the next day in the cafeteria, then it becomes, unfortunately, our problem,” Sutherland said.
Riggs recalled a time when she was elementary principal when two girls got into a fight in the bathroom at Dixie Theater, but the issue was brought to school the following Monday.
“It started causing a big disruption in their grade level,” said Riggs. “We had to get involved and address it. We have to address it if it causes problems in school.”
“If it’s just something that’s going on socially, we try to get them to call each other’s parents,” Sutherland added.
“This policy we are adopting models the state,” noted Board Member Kris Burleson, “so it’s not anything we come up with.”
“If we didn’t use (the model), I would have to do the same thing, make the definitions and put them in here,”  Riggs said.
“It’s required by state law,” Bishop added.
In the regular session of the board of education, held after the work session, the board uanimously approved the Jamari Terrell Williams Student Bullying Prevention Policy.

See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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