Five actions we can take to address bullying

The kids are definitely not alright

My son was bullied in elementary school last year. For months. His school and our school district let him down. And we are still dealing with the fallout.

Over the last 18 months, I have come across many parents who have shared similar stories of harmful peer interactions and the failures of school leadership and districts. Recent news reports of bullying, including a CBS I-Team investigation about the experiences of two Arlington students, and a Boston Globe article highlighting the sad situation of a Northampton high school student who took her own life after being bullied should serve as a call to action to policymakers.

It’s imperative to take steps to prevent other children and teens from being harmed not only by bullying but by systems and leadership that appear to be failing many youth in our Commonwealth.

Bullying must be taken seriously and addressed comprehensively, with adequate resources. It’s not enough to offer a commitment to zero tolerance.

The time to act is now. The kids are definitely not all right.

As attorney general, Gov. Maura Healey took critical steps to address hate and bias in school settings, cyberbullying and off-campus bullying, and hate in sports.

As governor, her commitment to comprehensively address the mental health needs of children and work to ensure that all kids thrive, no matter who they are, can be bolstered by prioritizing bullying, recognizing the challenges of addressing this complicated issue, and taking a strategic approach to policy change. In fact, Healey could make Massachusetts a leader in the nation through a comprehensive and multi-faceted anti-bullying initiative.

I encourage her, along with lawmakers on Beacon Hill, to consider five actions:

  1. Prioritize the issue for interagency action. Moving the needle on bullying requires comprehensive approaches that involve multiple agencies. It’s not just a matter for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as bullying has health, safety, and human services aspects that go beyond educational settings.. A point person serving as an interagency staff person dedicated to bullying prevention and intervention would go far to ensure the kind of interagency work that needs to take place.
  2. Convene a task force or commission. Identifying best practices and consulting experts to develop a multi-agency strategy to address bullying more proactively with adequate resources at both the state and local levels is critically important. Massachusetts is fortunate to have two of the nation’s experts on bullying: Elizabeth Englander, executive director of Bridgewater State University’s Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and Peter Raffalli, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention Advocacy Collaborative. They, in addition to others who have in- depth knowledge about bullying, along with students and families affected by bullying, should be tapped to help develop a statewide plan to tackle this complex problem.
  3. Review the current law for potential improvements. MGL c.71, § 37O, including updates from Chapter 86 of the Acts of 2014, appears to be one of the strongest laws in the nation. Yet it’s time to examine how well it’s working, where it falls short, and what changes may be in order.
  4. Collect experiential and process data. Quantitative data on reported and confirmed incidents of bullying, school culture and climate studies, and other surveys such as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey provide information to understand the breadth and depth of bullying. But it’s clear that bullying remains sorely underreported, with one source indicating that “fewer than half of all students who experienced bullying in school report it to authorities.”A deep dive into several communities to analyze how schools address bullying and how students and families experience school approaches and responses would go far to illuminate needs that require attention and resources. An in-depth examination of what actually transpires in school settings might also shed light on challenges faced by schools and districts in implementing procedures required by state law. This kind of analysis may also identify gaps in leadership and communication that may be contributing to underreporting and inadequate responses from school officials.
  1. Consider local resource needs. It may be that many schools, districts, and communities do not have ample resources to take a proactive and comprehensive approach to bullying prevention and intervention. The ability of school districts to prevent and effectively address bullying when it occurs is likely connected to resources, such as time, staff, funds, and programs to address this problem. Many school districts may make efforts to comply with existing law and mandated data reporting and may not have the capacity to do more. Resources targeted not only for social emotional learning programs, but anti-bullying initiatives, including ways of measuring progress and impact, beyond quantitative metrics, should be made available to school districts.

Even the most robust laws and regulations will only be effective when combined with school, institutional, cultural, social, community and/or family practices that promote healthy, respectful communications and interactions and involve age-appropriate measures of accountability.

I’ve seen firsthand how bullying can be challenging to address. And how the effects on the child and families can be damaging in many ways. Yet I have confidence that policymakers—in collaboration with educators, youth development specialists, and others—can fulfill the obligation to educate, protect, and meet the needs of all youth, with particular care and concern for youth who are marginalized and vulnerable.

When it comes to bullying, we need to do everything possible to ensure that the kids will be all right.

Christa Kelleher is the research and policy director at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the McCormack school at UMass Boston.