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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Phoebe Prince Case--Bullied to Death in Massachusetts

In today's "Get Schooled" blog in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Maureen Downey asks, "Why didn’t someone save Phoebe Prince from unrelenting bullying?...For those of you who work in schools, why would administrators and teachers let this persecution go unchecked?"

This is my response I posted for her:

Most administrators have the same attitude that most teachers have, that bullying is a rite of passage, that the victim is somehow bringing it on himself or herself, that it’s no big deal. When I was a building administrator, I had a very specific protocol for dealing with hardcore high school bullying of the variety that this poor girl endured.

When a situation was brought to my attention, usually by the victim or the victim’s parents, I took interviewed them and took extensive notes. I then spoke to teachers and other adults in the school to see if they had noticed anything—I learned not to use the term “bullying,” because of the eye-rolling and attitude of the other administrators and the teachers—it was easier to work around them and build a case myself than to try to get their cooperation in advance in working to change the culture of the school, especially if the bully was a popular student with influential parents.

I also interviewed student witnesses, always alone, and always guaranteeing their anonymity. I took care to interview them at times when other students wouldn’t know that they were in my office, perhaps having the guidance counselor or a coach lend me their office instead and have the school secretary send a note to call the student there.

Once I determined whether there was a persistent and serious bullying issue, I met alone with the bully in my office. I went to the bully’s classroom to get him or her myself, because I wanted the rest of the students to see that something was up and I was aware of it. During the course of my discussion with the bully, I allowed the student to offer his or her side of the story, which usually was in diametric opposition to everything I had heard from the victim and the witnesses and the adults. Frequently the bully would characterize him or herself as being victimized by the victim and simply defending him or herself. Even when confronted with hard evidence such as notes and eyewitness accounts from several others, including adults, I never had a bully who would break down and admit to such cruelty. I did not reveal any of my sources to the bully. I told the bully that I would notify his or her parents of the situation and that zero tolerance would be implemented effective immediately.

Before the student left my office, I would notify him or her that if there were any retaliation whatsoever against the victim, or anyone s/he thought had been a witness, either in school or online, that there would be an immediate ten-day out-of-school suspension for disruption of the academic environment, and this would apply to any of the bully’s friends who took any retaliatory action. (I never had to enforce this—it was a very effective way to shut down the grapevine.) I also notified the bully that any future incidents would be considered a persistent pattern of behavior by me and would result in the bully’s being transferred to the district’s alternative school at best, possible expulsion from our campus, and a police report filed by me for stalking, criminal harassment, and potentially assault. At this point, I would have the school resource officer come in to back me up on the criminal issue. I would explain to the student that my job as administrator was to hear all the sides and weigh the issue, that I believed the victim and the witnesses, and that I would tolerate no more bullying, period, and I had the legal authority to back up what I was telling him or her.

As soon as the bully left my office, I would call the parents and ask them to come in for a conference. I would give them the same information I had given their child, including all of the background information I had gathered so they would know that the situation was serious. Since 1985, I have had a grand total of ONE set of parents who were aghast at their child’s behavior and demanded to see her right then and admonish her to cut it out. Every other set of parents went berserk. I have had parents show up at school board meetings and demand that I be fired for victimizing their football player son by disciplining him for physically assaulting a gay classmate in the cafeteria in front of dozens of witnesses. I have had parents yank their sons out of my high school to homeschool them rather than accept my warning (not punishment) of their sons for physically and verbally harassing a female student in plain view of teachers and other students. I have had fellow administrators tell me that I was making a big deal out of nothing, that I was bringing unwelcome attention to the superintendent’s office and the school board, and that kids will be kids.

Persistent and severe bullying is a violation of a student’s civil right to a free and appropriate public education. Administrators have to deal with it effectively, and that usually falls on the assistant principal or dean of discipline. It takes time, backbone, and the support of senior administrators, the superintendent, and the school board.

Tennessee and Delaware It Is!

Wow, the DOE and the president have set the bar very high in the Race to the Top. Not only did Georgia not win a grant yet, but only two states were awarded funds, not the anticipated four.

We will be keeping a close eye on our neighbors in Tennessee and Delaware. It's an exciting time to be an education reformer!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Race to the Top Winners to Be Announced 1 PM ET

The conservative school choice advocacy group the Center for Education Reform has set Georgia's odds for winning a $460 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education at 10 to 1. The winners will be announced today at 1:00 PM Eastern Time. We will be watching eagerly to see which of the four states that applied are considered to be the most progressive reform environments for public education.