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8:26 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Time to get tough on bullies - parents and the law

Children often received mixed and confusing messages from adults about how to handle a bully. One school of thought was to apply the "Fade Away" tactic - to just stay out of the bully's way, avoid them, and they will find someone else to bully.

Illustration by Richard Haddad/WNI

Children often received mixed and confusing messages from adults about how to handle a bully. One school of thought was to apply the "Fade Away" tactic - to just stay out of the bully's way, avoid them, and they will find someone else to bully.

It happens every day at our schools. A child gets pushed, words are exchanged, it may come to blows, a student feels threatened and then some part of them retreats, emotionally or physically, into a place filled with anxiety and fear - a place overshadowed by a bully.

For these young students, school is not a place where they feel safe - and ultimately it becomes a place they do not want to be.

Up until a few years ago, school administrators, teachers and coaches would identify and administer consequences for involvement in a fight or a bullying incident.

In today's society - an environment supercharged by laws, lawsuits and ever-growing school violence - police officers are often summoned, witnesses are asked to give written statements, parents are called to the school grounds, law enforcement reports are compiled and students are charged.

Law, not policy

For public education institutions today, contacting the police to report fights or bullying is not simply a policy, but a legal requirement. Changes in how school personnel deal with fights, harassment and intimidation were made in April of 2005 when Governor Janet Napolitano signed House Bill 2368 into law. The law has become known as "The Bullying Statute."

The law requires every public school to adopt a hazing policy and mandates school employees to report all suspected incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying.

This means a school can no longer pick and choose which incidents to report. But in order to report incidents, administrators and teachers must be made aware of the violations. This is where the accountability process becomes tricky. Think back when you were young. For many of us, it was often better to not report a bullying incident - especially if we were the victims.

What's a child to do?

Children often received mixed and confusing messages from adults about how to handle a bully. One school of thought was to apply the "Fade Away" tactic - to just stay out of the bully's way, avoid them, and they will find someone else to bully. Report them, and they and their friends will target you for the remainder of your life. (Or at least that's how it felt at the time.)

Another school of thought was the "Bully the Bully" tactic - to be strong and stand up to the bully. "A bully needs to know you will not give in to their intimidation," a much larger adult would tell you. "You must fight back and show them you are not afraid." (But you are afraid.)

This approach often resulted in public campus humiliation and injury for the less physical child, or those of us who would only find ourselves standing on a football field if we had a trombone in our hands.

It also could result in being disciplined for actions you took as defensive measures, which then stained your "Permanent Record." The record that you thought teachers were writing so they could pass it along to everyone in your life you ever hoped to impress, date, marry, work for and those who would judge you at the golden gates.

Nowadays, according to the statute, everything that happens must be reported. But students shouldn't be left to the mercy of adult and police interpretations of what constitutes an incident. So schools are required to adopt a confidential process for students to report incidents and then establish a clearly-defined process for investigating suspected cases of harassment, intimidation and bullying. The school's policy must also be distributed to parents and printed in student handbooks.

What constitutes a hazing incident?

The law defines hazing as "any intentional, knowing or reckless act committed by a student, whether individually or with others, against another student."

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association defines bullying as having three criteria:

• Behavior is intended to harm or disturb.

• Imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.

• Behavior occurs repeatedly.

Violations can include nonverbal or emotional bullying and even cyber-bullying - sending insulting messages over the Internet or through cell phones as text messages.

Students accused of breaking the Bullying Statute can be charged with a wide range of violations, from disrupting an educational institution to assault.

According to a Hamilton Fish Institute study on bullying, an estimated 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools every month in the United States.

And while the law has some bite, many students fear it will bite back if they report a bully.

For parents, it becomes ever more important to know what is going on at your child's school and in their heart.

History has shown us that anyone living in fear, no matter what their age - will not live in happiness or reach their fullest potential.