published Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Secrecy on bullying wrong

Public schools here may not be entirely able to prevent students from bullying other students, but they certainly can go a long way toward that goal by being clear, certain, committed and transparent about the rules against bullying and the punishment for violations of that policy. Yet Hamilton County school officials and the principal at Hunter Middle School apparently are not operating by that standard. Given the incident reported by this newspaper on Sunday's front page, that is a failure of leadership.

Sunday's story described how four male students, while changing clothes both before and after a physical education class on Sept. 23, were held down and beaten with a belt by four other students, one of whom recorded the beatings with a cell phone. One of the victims, who told his mother about the incident when he got home, had his shorts off when two of the boys grabbed him and held him down.

The mother reported the incident to the school's principal, Robert Alford, who subsequently held a meeting with the mother and a school resource officer, who contacted police. In a subsequent investigation, they learned that such beatings had happened before but had not been reported, apparently out of fear and a mistaken assumption of shame.

One of the alleged assailants told police that he had believed no one would tell on him because he was "respected." Ultimately the investigation led to the four accused assailants being brought before Juvenile Court.

The police report, which redacted the names of the assailants and their victims, said the primary aggressor giggled about the beatings as he described them. He said they were planned in advance, and that he "was just having fun." Another boy identified as an assailant later posted a threat on Facebook to one of the victims for informing on him to the school.

What is troubling about the school system's response to this instance of bullying -- and to the prior unreported instances -- is officials' lack of communication and transparency about their handling of the case, and their apparent lack of clear communication about anti-bullying policies to students and parents before and after the incident was reported.

Parents of the victims, for example, are being told by school officials -- as Alford told this paper's reporters -- that they cannot comment on the disciplinary measures taken in this case. They insist, wrongly we believe, that because the assailants are minors, school officials cannot say what punishment was given for the offense. Neither will they say how or whether they intend to protect the victims at school now that the assailants have been disciplined.

Parents of the victims have heard that the assailants were suspended for 20 days, and then placed in alternative school until the next semester. School officials would not confirm or comment on this report.

Such failure to communicate policies and consequences before the incident, and the secrecy since, needlessly fosters confusion, erodes trust and undervalues the need for, and benefit of, clear, open and transparent school management to mitigate such abuse.

In the case of bullying and abuse of other students, as in all cases of abuse at any age level, there should be no culture of silence. It is wrong, and it perpetuates bullying and abuse.

Principals and teachers must respect legal confidentiality standards for minors, but that does not require them to remain silent on school policies pertaining to bullying and abuse of other students, and the penalties that result from violations.

When the school year begins, school leaders should clearly communicate to all students, and to their parents, that bullying, abuse and harassment will not be tolerated, and that punishment for any such offenses will be certain and will fit the offense. They should encourage students to report to their teachers, coaches, principals and parents any instance of abuse, harassment or bullying. While adhering to privacy laws, they should further announce to students and parents any violations that have been reported or are being investigated, and the punishments that ultimately are meted out in confirmed cases.

The purpose of such transparency is to create and strengthen the courage of victims to report abuse that they may otherwise hide out of misplaced shame, and to warn away potential aggressors. Schools, churches, scout organizations, orphanages and many other organizations and institutions for too long have nurtured secrecy and covered up all forms of abuse and harassment to avoid embarrassment and scandals. The culture of silence is where this begins, and it should end when children are entrusted to our public institutions.

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despicableme said...

Transparency.... The last I knew of there was no one size fits all discipline policy for Hamilton County Schools other than it's Zero Tolerance Policy. Said policy only addresses: possession of a firearm, an explosive, or incendiary device or poison gas device. Striking a school employee or school resource officer and unlawfully possessing any controlled substance or drug. The above will result in a suspension of at least a calendar year. The following may result in a calendar year suspension: possession of a knife, any device with a sharp blade or device capable of injuring or disabling another individual and possessiong, transferring, or receiving drug paraphernalia, look-a-like drugs or non-prescription drugs. Every incident in any school that does not fall under Zero Tolerance guidelines is dealt with using any number of factors including the severity of the infraction and any legal ramifications of the offending students actions. The article clearly stated that the offending students had been punished and that further action was being taken in the juvenile court system.

Furthermore, there is no lack of transparency or mentality of secrecy when student records are confidential and protected under TCA 10-7-504 and under IDEA guidelines if those students happen to have a disability. So how exactly is it 'wrong' to not release confidential student records to the public? Also, if said records are infact confidential then it should make sense to everyone involved that no information pertaining to suspensions has been released. People should also not listen to community rumor about the legnth of suspension or overall disciplinary practice regarding this event.

This situation is not a bullying issue - it is a legal issue now being handled by the court system.

Parents in all Hamilton County Schools sign a zero tolerance policy form the first week of school.

How about rather than chastising an administrator for handling a situation to the fullest extent of their ability we commend them for assisting in your child's education.

If you don't want NCLB transfers in your students building after they commit a criminal offense on school grounds then contact your congressman. A school administrator only has the power to suspend not to remove a student from one building and place them in another.

November 29, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.
McRand said...

One of the alleged assailants told police that he had believed no one would tell on him because he was "respected."

Respected by whom? By students that were afraid of him? By principals, teachers, and coaches, because he is a valuable athlete? Or, maybe by who his parents are by perhaps having a strong connection to the education, political, law enforcement or business community? Or, some, or all of the above?

Politics is played everywhere in society, and often those in the pecking order of administration would rather cower than have to offend someone of greater power and influence in their own up-line, or outside the system that they work in, by bringing attention to them about the brats. They might lose favor for promotion, or even jeopardize their job/position or pension. It's easier to pass the buck, or even blame the victim, than to deal with it.

Whatever the situation, in this particular case, and even though it has moved into the courtroom, it's still a bullying problem and needs to be dealt with internally by laying down strict warnings and measures of discipline to the offending bullies.

I think that a lot of the spirit of bullying, and believe me it is a spirit, and not from the throne of heaven by the way, that can be fostered in the sphere of athletic competition. There is often taunting and feelings of animosity between rivals that bring about desire to bring satisfaction by retaliating against those who may have offended or intimidated you. A "They aren't of us, therefore they don't deserve any respect" can, and does ensue in many cases.

This same spirit that exists in those of that mindset is all too willing to intimidate, belittle, and even physically offend those who are not like them. Most kids that are bullied are kids that don't fit into the "normal" avenues of their peers, either academically, athletically or in other social activities and lifestyles.

It's bad enough that these things, bullying s, take place elsewhere, but when they happen in school, a place where every kid should feel safe to move about and pursue their academic duties, it falls on the administration to ensure their safety and nip and indication of bullying in the bud. It won't happen until the head of such administration steps up and performs his or her duty to make sure that it loud and clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. The old saying goes, "The fish rots from the head down". If the evils continue, cut off the head, and continue to until it stops. Every kid in every school environment deserves to go to school without fear of worrying about some punk clobbering them, and nobody caring about it.

November 29, 2011 at 3:14 p.m.
aklashlee said...

I have told my son if this happens to him, fight back! Self defense in my opinion. Might not be the best advice, to some, but I be damned if my child will be scared to go to school because of some bully. Have already had a couple of small incidents and nothing was done about it so we have decided to take matters into our own hands. My son is a sweet kid and I would rather him be kicked out of school for defending himself than being scared of going to school.

November 29, 2011 at 9:38 p.m.
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