How Schools Can Address Bullying

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer for the Ithaca City School District, urges school personnel to take measures when they see serious acts of discrimination, harassment, or bullying that may be violations of New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act.

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer, Ithaca City School District

Verba spoke at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27 sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

“When we see something, we have to do something, when it’s around the Dignity Act work,” Verba explained. “Kids do have an opportunity to work it out. When they run out of skills, when it really looks like it’s creating this threshold of harm, that’s when we need to say something. Everyone has a right to not just be welcomed, but to belong. We want to be in a community with one another.”

In a presentation titled “Creating Safe and Caring Schools via the Dignity Act,” Verba reviewed the purpose, definition, and operation of DASA, as the law is known.

The goal of DASA, she said, “is to create a safe and supportive school climate where students can learn and focus, rather than fear being discriminated against, harassed, or bullied.” She noted that the act took effect in 2012, and was amended in 2013 to include cyberbullying and again in 2018 to include gender identity and expression.

She said DASA protects against discrimination based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, sex, gender, and “other.”

Harassment is defined as the “creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by verbal and non-verbal threats, intimidation, or abuse,” she said. More specifically, she added, the behavior qualifies as harassment if it interferes with a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits, or mental, emotional, and/or physical well being; causes fear for personal safety or may cause physical or emotional injury; or risks disruption of the school environment.

Bullying, Verba said, is defined as using an imbalance of power, involving the use of physical strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing information, to hurt or control another person; occurring or having the potential to occur more than once; with the intent to cause harm. Cyberbullying is simply bullying that occurs through any form of electronic communication, she said.

WATCH: “Dignity for All Students Act (DASA)”

Verba explained that under DASA school staff have a responsibility to provide instruction to students on civility, citizenship, and character to address the prohibition against harassment, discrimination, and bullying and cyberbullying. School staff must orally report incidents within one school day, and follow up with a written report within two school days, she added.

As for school administrators, they must provide students, staff, and families with information about DASA and how to contact the school’s DASA coordinator, Verba explained. She said administrators lead or supervise investigations into all reports of DASA violations.

A case rises to the level of a “material incident” that is reported to the state, Verba explained, if  it is a single or series of related incidents involving harassment, discrimination, or bullying that created a hostile environment to interfere with education, well being, or physical safety.

Verba acknowledged that school personnel sometimes grapple with the line between bullying by an aggressor against a victim, and conflict where all parties are affected. And, she added, there is a line between bullying and behavior that, though unfortunate and needs to be addressed, is rude or mean.

She said that when school personnel interpret incidents of rudeness or meanness as bullying, they may fail to give students the space to work out the issues on their own. “Many of us have done some self-reflection on that,” she said. “I probably called things or misdiagnosed things because of my urgency to make something right.”

Another struggle Verba described is when parents and school personnel disagree about the seriousness of an incident affecting their child. “Parents will respond often in a way of, ‘You don’t care about my child, you’re not going to do anything,’” Verba said. “It does not build the bridge of relationship and parent as partner.”

She stressed that it is important for schools to respect the lived experience of the child and parents. “I really need these parents as my partners,” she said. “If they’re telling me that this met the threshold of something that created a hostile environment for their young person, am I really going to tell them that they’re wrong?”

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.

DOWNLOAD Dignity for All Students Act in Tompkins County

Kids Getting Bullied: What Adults Can Do

Bullying can have serious immediate and lasting harmful impacts on children, yet 64 percent of those who are bullied do not report the experience to an adult, according to Bailey Huston, coordinator of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Huston spoke at “Kindness, Acceptance, and Inclusion in the Age of Covid-19,” a webinar hosted by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force on October 27 in a program marking National Bullying Prevention Month.

DOWNLOAD: Resources from PACER’S National Bullying Prevention Center

Huston reviewed the four main types of youth bullying: verbal bullying, using words to tease or harass; emotional bullying, such as manipulation, gossip, or exclusion; physical bullying, such as kicking, hitting, damaging or stealing property, or unwanted touching; and cyberbullying, using technology such as social media to hurt or harm.

“We all know that conflict is a normal part of a kids life, and it can be hard to figure out if it is bullying or just conflict,” Huston said. Yet, she added, it is crucial to understand the distinction. She explained that conflict is between individuals of equal circumstance who are not seeking to cause harm, whereas bullying involves a power imbalance where a perpetrator is not concerned about causing harm and may actually be motivated by a desire to control.

“Some common views about bullying are that ‘It’s part of growing up,’ ‘It makes you tough,’ ‘Kids will be kids,’ ‘It’s only only teasing,’” said Huston. “But bullying should not be part of growing up.” In fact, she argued, bullying can negatively impact a child’s education, health, and safety.

Students who are bullied may avoid going to school, which can cause a decline in academic performance and even dropping out, Huston said. Bullying can lead to stomach aches, headaches, and sleep problems, and emotional problems like depression and anxiety, she said. Finally, bullying behavior can result in physical harm to bullies and their targets, she said.

It is important to emphasize, Huston said, that bullying is a behavior, and behavior can be changed. The focus on addressing bullying should be on the behavior, and not the person, she said.

“We avoid using words like the ‘bully’ or the ‘victim,’” she explained. “Behavior like bullying can be changed. It is not a permanent part of who they are. This behavior does not have to define them. When you pull back those layers, we can see there are number of ways we can redirect the behavior in positive ways.

Huston advised parents to talk to children about bullying, and support and empower them if they are bullied. She encouraged parents to start a conversation with their children at a young age, and to provide constructive backup if and when they experience bullying. She said it is important for children to know that being bullied is not their fault and not their responsibility alone to stop the bullying. Huston said students should be encouraged to report bullying to a teacher or trusted adult, and advised against encouraging them either to stand up to the person bullying them or to just ignore the bullying.

Huston noted that PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center provides a wealth of educational as well as support materials on its website.

To address a serious bullying problem, Huston suggested developing actions plans. She said a “Student Action Plan” can reflect on the issue and develop steps to change the situation. A “Parent Action Plan” should keep a record of incidents which should include any written information, the date of the event or events and person or persons involved, and their child’s own account of what happened, she said.

Additionally, Huston said, parents should decide on the best approach for taking action—for example, whether to approach school staff, health professionals, law enforcement, or other community members about the problem. She said parents should learn their legal rights in the situation, and know the procedures for reporting a problem. Many schools have specific procedures for reporting incidents, but Huston noted that Pacer’s website provides a template letter that parents can use as well. (Click here to download).

For more resources, click here for The Sophie Fund’s bullying prevention page.