Back to school: What should you do if your child is being bullied or is the bully?
In June, we wrote a story about a 12-year-old African American girl in Georgetown, who had been called an ape, referred to as a slave and had a fellow student make a whipping gesture towards her. The school report, referred to the incident as bullying, but her parent said none of the students involved had been disciplined.
It made us wonder, when bullying happens, what are the responsibilities of the student being bullied and her parent, the student who has been accused of being the bully and his parent, the school administration and the district? What exactly happens when a report is filed?
As we get ready for the new school year, we look at how to file a report and what to expect to happen once you’ve done so, as well as what to do if your child is accused of bullying?
What is bullying?
Bullying is “repeated unwanted behaviors or words toward a person,” says Peter Price, the director of social and emotional learning and multitier systems of support at Austin Independent School District and a former middle school principal. Those behaviors could be physical, social or emotional. It could be in-person or done through social media.
In fact this year, the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbot signed David’s Law, named after David Molak, a San Antonio high-schooler who killed himself after being cyberbullied. David’s Law, which will go into affect Sept. 1, makes cyberbullying, even if it happened away from school grounds, part of the school’s responsibility. It allows for anonymous reporting of incidents and requires schools to notify the parents of the kid who was bullied and the parents of the kid who has been accused of being a bully within three days.
David’s Law also allows an injunction against a social media account as well as a restraining order against the bully. Bullying can become a Class A misdemeanor instead of a Class B misdemeanor when it is done with the intent that the child commit suicide or harm herself or if a previous restraining order or injunction has been violated.
This law is important because of what teachers and school administrators are seeing in their schools. “What has changed is the differences in what it looks like because of technology,” says Kenisha Coburn, principal at Kealing Middle School. “There are a lot of verbal things and pictures that happen off campus when parents are sleeping … also things that used to be a one-time conflict have turned into a pattern. They keep coming up.”
Comments and photos get shared again and again, and they don’t go away, she says.
What happens if your child has been bullied?
“What I tell students and parents is you should expect to be treated with respect,” Coburn says. “If you feel uncomfortable or tell someone to stop and they don’t, report it.”
Tell a staff member at the school. Each school is different as far as who primarily investigates incidents, but all teachers and school administrators receive training on what to do when it gets reported to them. Price suggests that if it’s happening in a classroom, go to that teacher, but if it’s happening in multiple locations or outside of the classroom, it would make sense to go to an assistant principal or a counselor.
“It should be dealt with, every one of those times, whether it’s one time or 20 times,” Price says.
Sometimes students don’t want to report it because they don’t want to be seen going into the office to report it. Coburn says last year, she especially noticed parents telling her that their child didn’t want them to report what was happening.
Many schools now have an online form students can fill out. They also can email an administrator as well.
It’s not just the student who it’s happening to that should report it. “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander,” Coburn says. “If you’re watching this kind of behavior, you’re part part of the problem.”
Coburn wants as much detail as possible. What happened? Where did it happen? Who witnessed it or was made aware of it later?
The general rule, Coburn says, is that once it’s reported, it should be acknowledged within 48 hours.
What should you do if you learn your child has been bullied?
Be calm. Emotions are running high. If you’re really good friends with the accused bully’s parents, you might want to reach out to them to have them talk to their child, but if you don’t really know the parents or you only slightly know them, do not make contact. Let the school handle it.
Do not talk to the bully. That’s not your job as the parent. Resist.
Make sure your child has filed a report and advise your child against retaliation. Do encourage your child to continue to file reports each time there is a new incident.
You also want to talk to your child about not becoming a bully toward the bully. “Sometimes it’s a one-way street,” Price says. “Typically, it’s a two-way street.”
Coburn also has seen one student come to her in March to report another student as the bully; then by May, the “bully” is coming to her to report the other student.
What should you do if you learn your child is the bully?
Try not to panic. It doesn’t mean your child is going to necessarily be kicked out of school or a have a police record. Typically, your child will meet with a counselor or principal or assistant principal to get her version of the incident.
Sometimes staff will meet with both students to do a mediation. It could just be a misunderstanding in which kids who have been friends for years, now went to far and didn’t realize it. The staff member will talk to them about making better choices and understanding the feelings that led to the bullying.
If it continues, it might mean that your child will have a “stay away” agreement — a formal document that tells them not to interact with the other student. Sometimes, students will get a schedule change or teacher change to help that, but usually this isn’t done because students will see one another in the hallways or at lunch or recess or before or after school. Instead schools want students to figure out how to co-exist without interacting.
You get to help with this by reinforcing the rules and not encouraging further incidents.
In severe cases, your student might be given a suspension or sent to an alternative school for a time. Sometimes the school police are brought in as well when it’s clear a law has been broken or could soon be broken. Things that get automatically reported are physical aggression that causes serious harm and sexting. Just because the school police get involved, doesn’t mean an arrest will follow, but it could.
Schools are changing how they treat a bully. Rather than just looking at punishment, they are trying to restore peace.
“One thing our district is doing that’s positive,” says Price, “is working to adopt more restorative practices. We help students see the harm they created and learn how to restore peace. Most kids don’t come to school with intent to cause trouble.”
Students in schools that feed into Akins High School are engaged in a pilot program that uses restorative rather than punitive practices.
If students are dealing with a trauma or another challenge, it might be manifesting itself as bullying, Price says. Rather than labeling them as “bad” students, “we’re helping these challenged students resolve their internal issues.”
Coburn says she often will look at what community resources might be available to help that student.
What happens if your child continues to be bullied?
You need to continue to report it to your child’s school administration. If it continues to happen and you don’t feel heard or that anything has been done, take it to the school district by calling the level administrator (the person in charge of the elementary schools or the middle schools or the high schools). That person will work with your school’s principal and assistant principal to find a better solution.
You do have the option to request a transfer to another school. It’s rare that parents opt for this, but they can. Just know, that you will be required to get your child to that new school. “It feels like we’re running away from the problem rather than resolving it,” Price said.
Price and Coburn do encourage parents and students to actually read and keep the code of conduct that their child gets that first week of school. Refer to it to understand your rights on bullying and any other school issue.