Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bullying of Children With Disabilities - Postscript II

Centennial Fountain, Seattle University. From ...Centennial Fountain, Seattle University. From left to right in the background Garrand Hall (School of Nursing), Administration Building, Piggot Hall (Albers School of Business). The fountain was designed by Seattle artist George Tsutakawa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have mentioned here, at the recent excellent conference at Seattle University, I was lucky enough to present a half-day session on Bullying and IDEA. It is rare to get to discuss these important topics in such depth, and I thank the Institute as well as the participants who were incredibly helpful during the presentation.

In a previous post, I mentioned our detailed discussion of the definition of bullying.  In this post, I'm going to summarize our discussion of the public policy question. (Yes, there is a reason why I got that masters degree in public policy after all.)

Some participants questioned whether the school districts should have a role in bullying, ie is there a government interest?   Most participants felt that bullying, which as we know from the definition requires a power imbalance, requires intervention. A number of participants, however, felt that dealing with bullies is one of the life lessons that one has to learn.  They pointed out their own school bullies, as well as judge bullies and others in later life.  We also discussed our popular culture images regarding this issue.  Pick almost any movie with bullies and the victim eventually gets ticked off and does in the bad guy.  The best example is "A Christmas Story," the popular Christmas movie in which Farkus bullies Ralphie until one day he gets possessed and beats the heck out of him while imitating his father's bad language.  Most other movie involving bullies have a similar plot line.

But most participants felt that bullying is different because of the power imbalance.  What do you think? What exactly is the role of government, here the school district, with respect to bullying?
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  1. That’s really a difficult question to answer, because I think it depends on the situation at hand. There comes a point where state intervention is necessary. When things get violent, when students no longer feel safe at school at any time, bullying has gone too far.

    At the same time, some institutions have taken the application of law itself too far, I feel, establishing environments where friends can’t pick on each other (completely harmlessly) without being reprimanded.

    I think, ultimately, state government has a place in all this, and perhaps even federal, if laws could be passed. But there is a difference between stopping offenders in a fair and just way, and stopping offenders in a way that restricts the rights of everyone involved.
    Ideally, bullying law wouldn’t be about punishing the bully, but rather determining why he or she feels the need to bully. In my experience, bullying never simply happens, but is the product of social catalysts.

    1. I think the "state"--and by extension school systems-- (education agencies, districts, and schools) have an affirmative obligation to address bullying. It is part and parcel of providing a comprehensive civic education, and ultimately of building a just and inclusive society for all.

      From a legal standpoint, I think there is a legitimate argument to be made for the proposition that school systems have an affirmative obligation to address bullying. It is not something linked solely to the IDEA (as a potential deprivation of FAPE), but to other civil rights statutes (as potential discriminatory treatment under CRA, ADA, 504). E.g., See OCR letter 10/26/10.

      In my view there are some core preventive "tools" that educational systems can adopt in addressing this problem:
      1) Building a better infrastructure for school-based mental health using Systems of Care theory.
      2) Addressing root causes by changing school culture/climate (e.g., PBIS Tier 1 approaches).
      3) Strengthening Tier 2/3 PBIS approaches. For example, implementing restorative discipline as a corrective learning tool for these types of incidences. The restorative discipline process allows for learning to take place--for the perpetrator, the victim and the entire education community. This is important. We know that kids who are bullied oftentimes engage in bullying behavior themselves if root causes are not addressed.
      Good discussion thread!
      John Inglish

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks as usual for the thoughtful comment.