On the Ed Beat: What’s in your school’s anti-bullying policy?

The lowdown: Schools’ bans on bullying

Does your school district have an anti-bullying policy? And if so, what protections are explicitly listed? This year marks the first time all 50 states have a law that addresses bullying prevention, but the laws differ in how strict they are and how far they reach.

There is still an ongoing national debate about whether local school districts should be required to have their own policies that ban bullying and about what protections should be included in anti-bullying policies.

In her blog post “School Bullying Policies Fall Short, Fail to Protect All Students, Report Says,” Education Week reporter Evie Blad dives into a report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that says many district-level anti-bullying policies are unspecific and ineffective.

Eighteen states require districts to include specific prohibitions on bullying based sexual orientation and gender identity in their local policies.

“Supporters of such policies say they communicate clearly to students that bullying behaviors will not be permitted in school,” Blad said. “Some researchers say that bullying with homophobic language is a problem even for heterosexual students, and that it should be addressed directly to prevent problems down the road.”

But others have said that including language related to LGBT students in policies could cause students from religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage to be fearful of speaking about their faith in school, Blad said.

According to the report, about 43 percent of districts had specific protections for students based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation and 14 percent had protections based on gender identity or gender expression.

It’s important for students to know that bullying isn’t every mean or hurtful behavior that happens in school, Blad said. Researchers define it as repeated behavior that is designed to hurt or isolate someone with an imbalance of power between the person doing the bullying and the person being bullied.

“Bullying is an important story because a growing body of research shows potential for long-term negative effects for people who are bullied in school,” Blad said.

Read Evie Blad’s blog post on the Education Week website here.

Think about it

  • What are some of the pros and cons of listing specific protections for students in a school’s anti-bullying policy?
  • Would giving specific protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students in anti-bullying policies infringe on religious students’ right to speak freely about their faith in school? How can schools ensure both parties are protected?

  • Do students in your school know where to report bullying? Do your administrators seem to take it seriously?

  • Journalists at times have to publish articles critical of people — for instance, a music review that critiques a singer’s performance or a column that calls for a fumble-prone athlete to be benched. Where is the line between “fair comment” and “bullying,” and who should decide?

  • How many people is your school suspending or expelling for cyberbullying? Is the number going up or down? Does the school make that statistic public, or is it difficult to get?

Own the story

In Blad’s blog post, she reported that in 2011, 29.5 percent of public school districts did not have anti-bullying policies — and some were required to have one. Find out if your school district is complying with the law.

First, find your state law. Stopbullying.gov has an interactive map with the elements of each state’s law and a link back to the original text. Blad suggests reading other states’ laws as well to see how your state’s law stacks up in comparison.  Additional information can be found here.

Then, find out if your district has an anti-bullying policy. Blad said most state laws require districts to publish their policies in a student handbook or to post them clearly so students are aware of the rules. If it’s not in the student handbook, Blad recommends checking your school board’s policies.

“But if you, as a student, can’t find it easily, some bullying prevention experts would argue that your school’s policy isn’t very effective,” she said.

If state law requires school districts to adopt their own anti-bullying policy and your district doesn’t have one, see if there are consequences in the law. Blad said to call your state’s department of education for a response and to ask for their most recent data to see if other districts aren’t complying with the law.

If your school district doesn’t have an anti-bullying policy, Blad recommends talking to administrators about how they handle bullying incidents in school. Districts without bullying policies might have less consistent approaches to disciplining these incidents, she said. Interview school officials — like principals, district-level officials who track data and implement policies and school psychologists — and ask if they see a need to adopt a policy.

The U.S. Department of Education has warned schools to respond to bullying on the basis of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity or disability status, no matter what the state law says.

If there already is a policy in place at your school, ask school officials if they think it has been effective. What protections are explicitly listed? And of course, talk to students — are they comfortable reporting bullying?

Tips from a pro

Consult with your state department of education to see if it tracks reports of bullying on a school-by-school or district-by-district basis, Blad said. If not, you can formally request records of reports of bullying from your public high school.

Still, remember the reports of bullying don’t always show the whole picture. Many students may not have reported bullying at all, Blad said, and some reports may have been classified as physical fights or other infractions.

To make the records-request process easier, use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator.

Be conscious of the different perspectives in the story. Some administrators may not believe that bullying policies can make a difference, Blad said. Ask why.

Read about other viewpoints to get a full perspective of the debate. For example, bullying expert Deborah Temkin wrote an article about the risks of only singling out protected characteristics (like race, sexual orientation or religion) in bullying policies.

Also, when writing about online bullying, read the Student Press Law Center’s myth-busting guide to covering cyberbullying.

Read Evie Blad’s blog post on the Education Week website here.

Updated Feb. 27, 2020