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Sat, March 23

New bullying problem for schools: parents

Independent's Eye

When you visit Brooklyn, you have to be amazed at the number of stoops.

They're scenic and historical. These graceful old stairways were often built steep because they were constructed during the era when Grand Pianos thrived, and when people would gather on the stoops to gossip, smoke and drink. In his excellent ebook, "Letters from Brooklyn," detailing a detailed, three-year exploration of New York City, retired San Diego Union-Tribune TV columnist Bob Laurence perfectly captures the vibrancy, energy and beauty of this community. But what strikes you here is the large number of stoops.

Kids bound down these stoops as they head to school as they did generations before -- but today there's a difference. Schools here and elsewhere continue to grapple with a major issue that won't go away. From California to Chicago to New Hampshire to Alabama, the problem of bullying, how to effectively short-circuit it, how to educate kids and how to deal with it when it occurs remains an issue.

Only now there's a new twist. A new problem: Some parents.

Three years ago I left my home in San Diego go to on a national school tour in my non-writing incarnation as an entertainer who does programs with a strong message content in schools. The tour began on the East Coast in September. By November 1 I had already been in three school districts where students had committed suicide due to bullying.

But by January 2012 I noticed something else. Some principals and teachers were privately commenting that some parents were beginning to become a problem: if another kid looked at their kid cross-eyed, some parents would say their child was bullied and demanded the other child's suspension. A few schools told me to address the bullying issue but to be careful not to overuse the "b" word.

By last school year, a few schools asked me to use the word "kind" and "kindness" instead of bullying. Now this year, as I do another tour, you can see still another shift:

While some schools still do use the word "bullying," an increasing number don't want the word to be used at all. Some schools are now using an approach where they talk about "bucket fillers" and "bucket dippers" -- and a bully is a "bucket dipper." Kids are taught that your bucket is filled (you feel good) or someone dips into your bucket (you feel bad). Not all schools are using this, but quite a few are.

There are several reason why. It's a good way to communicate the concept to kids -- and anti-bullying laws are all over the place. In some states, if a school learns about an argument but it really isn't bullying, it almost doesn't matter because strict process is unleashed as soon as a school is informed of an alleged bullying incident.

New Jersey's Anti Bullying Bill of Rights Act requires schools at all grade levels (including colleges) to report ALL bullying incidents to the state. This automatically triggers paperwork, an investigation and informing all involved families. So the word "bullying" can't be used loosely because if it is not "real" bullying, any allegation sparks a required-by-law process.

Connecticut and many other states pointedly define bullying as more than one incident in a school year. The reason: over the past few years some schools have heard from angry parents whose kids told them they were bullied when it was just one incident. Some parents were defining bullying too broadly and had gone way overboard.

It's a pity the word "bullying" is being frivolously used and overused by some parents to the extent that some schools now have to take care how they use it. Which makes combating bullying trickier.

It's like Brooklyn: you have to be amazed at the number of stoops.

Reach Joe Gandelman at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.

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