Similar to the last time I wrote this, your kids are likely either back in school or going to be back between now and just after Labor Day. Of course, after all the new sneakers, supplies, and backpacks are purchased, it comes time to actually deal with the logistics of school days. Unfortunately, that can also mean dealing with bullies, a process that can very quickly feel hopeless and frustrating. I used to teach high school, and because of this, I have gotten to see what handling a bullying situation looks like from the school end of things. While there have been a few occasions where we as parents have had to report a bullying incident, I have been able to approach it with a better understanding of how the system works on the other side, and a few times I’ve given other parents that breakdown to help them navigate things. I’m now going to pass my knowledge on to all of you. Before I begin, I do want to note that I am writing this to provide information and not here to defend all aspects of the system.
So, the first thing you need to know is that certain federal laws about education drive how these things are or are not handled. The biggest one is that children are supposed to be in school. Yes, I know there are options for schooling outside of traditional public school, but the takeaway from this is that the rules prioritize children being in school. The second is that there are very strict privacy laws regarding information about students and who has access to it. These are job-losing, educator license-pulling, and finable laws that can also potentially carry federal prison time with them. One of the first things I told a principal when one of my kids came to report a physical bullying incident on the bus was that I was a former teacher and that I understood there were limits to what he could tell me. I could see him take a relaxing pause of relief, and we were able to approach the situation as a team a lot better.
So, the first thing you should know is that any questions you ask need to be centered on your child or the general process for these matters. These are the things they cannot tell you:
- The name of the kid who bullied yours (although your kid often provides it to you).
- What disciplinary action the bully received.
- If the bully has been a repeat offender.
- If there are factors that contribute to a bully’s aggressive actions, such as troubles at home or the bully having an IEP for Emotional Disturbance.
I want to note that the bully’s parents also cannot be told things like the victim’s name or personal information about the victim. I’m also going to explain that last one just a touch. While not every kid that qualifies for an Emotional Disturbance IEP is aggressive, aggression can be a characteristic. When a kid with an IEP for Emotional Disturbance has an incident of aggressive or bullying behavior, there are very strict rules, based on federal law, regarding how those are approached by the staff and include how consequences are handled.
What this means for you is that when you’re talking with an administrator and already pretty upset about the situation (and understandably so), it can be easy to feel blown off because you feel like you are getting a lot of vague answers about the bully or what is happening in this situation. While there are exceptions, as a general rule administrators care about your kid and they don’t want your kid being hurt. But because of the things I listed, they often have their hands tied in certain ways along with an information gag order that makes it hard for you and your kid to feel in the loop and thus like you’re approaching this as a team. There is also a huge issue with many kids who are bullies honestly needing therapy services to deal with the root of the behavior, and the school cannot force parents to enroll a kid in therapy, has limited resources in that regard to provide it through the school, and often has little funding to help parents that would like those services through the school. Kids with an IEP may have access to more options in that regard, but there is often a shortage of people to provide the services. These are the kind of situations the school may be dealing with that they can’t tell you about:
- Within ten seconds of meeting the bully’s parents, they realized the bully’s behavior comes straight from their parents who are terrifyingly aggressive and security is staying close when they are on campus.
- The bully’s parents do realize there is an issue but are overwhelmed trying to get the kid help and are struggling with paying for it or have been on a waitlist forever.
- The school has been trying to get this kid lined up with services and will be on the phone for the fourth time in two weeks begging the district to provide help, but there are funding issues or not enough counseling staff to go around.
- The bully might qualify for services under an Emotional Disturbance IEP but they have a parent resistant to testing the kid because the parent doesn’t want the school sticking “some label” on their child.
- The bully’s home life has been undergoing an upheaval, but the parents aren’t taking the idea that their kid might need therapy seriously and are throwing blame for the behavior all over the place. If the upheaval is between the parents (like in a pending divorce), they may be throwing the blame at each other so much they lose track of the kid’s issues.
Unfortunately, the targets of bullies often get caught in the crossfire of all of this other stuff, and it can easily feel like the kid getting bullied is not treated as important (but they absolutely are). Now that you’ve got an idea of how complex these situations can get, I want to tell you what you can do.
- You can ask what the general school procedure is for investigating these situations.
- You can ask if there’s any other documentation, etc., that would be helpful to provide (names of witnesses, medical documentation if there were injuries, screencaps if there was a cyberbullying aspect).
- You can ask what steps will be taken to protect your child from bullying.
- You can ask what the school can do to help your kid feel safe.
- You can ask how they want you to report any repeat occurrences.
- You can ask what additional steps the school will take if the bullying behavior continues.
Another question that can come up, especially if there was a physical assault, is if law enforcement will get involved. This can depend on a number of factors including what age your kids are. Kids can’t be charged with assault until a certain age, otherwise, every toddler who bit a kid at preschool could end up with a probation officer, which would be ridiculous. On the other hand, it’s much more reasonable that your sixteen-year-old could get an assault charge if they bite someone hard enough to leave marks. Sometimes this can depend on how severe the assault was and how documentable the incident was (prosecutors have to have enough to pursue a case).
My overall advice is to try to approach things with administrators as a team and know that they are often working very hard behind the scenes to help your situation, but strict education laws don’t let them bring you in the loop the way you often wish you could be.
How did that bus situation for us end? Well, after the principal walked me through the general process of how he handled these situations, my kid did not see the principal follow up with the bus driver and the bully. There was one repeat incident, we reported it as the principal instructed, and my kid noted that the bully was not on the bus for quite some time, which tells us he probably was not allowed to ride the bus for a bit, given things. (Of course, the principal could not tell us this directly.) There were no other incidents, but my kiddo was left with the feeling he could go to the principal for help.
I hope your kids all have a wonderful year and that you won’t have to use this information at all, but if you do, I hope it helps.