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.