School bullying, power and public policy

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School bullying has been around as long as students have sat in classrooms. Today, we understand it as a complex social problem most often associated with an imbalance of power, according to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. One in four children who act as bullies will have a criminal record by the age of 30, reports the U.S. Department of Education.


A number of  recent bullying-related suicides in Minnesota’s public schools has brought the issue into the media’s spotlight. There have been 11 suicides in the last year, four in the past five months alone. As a result, conversation has focused on anti-bullying policy and its relationship with our schools’ LGBT community. Collectively, MPR, the StarTribune, and the Pioneer Press have published almost 20 stories on this issue since the end of September, fueling the debate just in time for Election Day. The debate has taken an intricate problem and fused it to mere talking points, generating nebulous statements on anti-bullying policy like, “I support it,” or “it should be addressed by teachers.”


The Anoka-Hennepin School District, which has experienced six of the 11 suicides, provides relevant anti-bullying and sexual orientation training for teachers, but critics say the policy’s vagueness makes it ineffective.


The policy currently indicates that “harassment on sexual orientation is not tolerated…staff members must intervene when they see or hear any harassment or bullying.” The sexual orientation curriculum policy indicates that “Anoka-Hennepin staff…shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions…staff are encouraged to take into consideration individual student needs and refer students to the appropriate social worker or licensed school counselor.”


The latter policy brings up an important part of school bullying that seems to be missing from the public conversation: school social workers and/or licensed school counselors. The importance of having these professionals available in our schools lies in their training and ability to address why bullying occurs in the first place, especially regarding some of a school’s more marginalized groups.


An imbalance of power and social stratification’s impact on social mobility are public problems that go well beyond accusations and political correctness. Students need to trust their learning environment and understand the resources available to them. A trained professional with the ability to work in and outside of the classroom is a good place to start.


We cannot work backwards from students taking their own lives down to debating policy verbiage. Let’s ask ourselves how school policy can better address the root of bullying and work to improve the dynamic of our school’s learning environments.