EVERETT — A new system to track intimidation, bullying and harassment of students is being launched this fall by the Everett School District.
A survey conducted last year found elementary, middle and high school students reporting problems such as sexual jokes or comments that made them feel uncomfortable and being intimidated because of their sexual orientation or religion.
The goal of the new program is “to create greater awareness and increased reporting of bullying, harassment and intimidation,” said Becky Ballbach, who oversees the Everett School District’s counseling program.
State laws to protect students from harassment and bullying date back to 2002. But with little progress reported on the issue, lawmakers are requiring schools to take action by Aug. 1.
The steps include adopting new policies on bullying and harassment, posting the policies on the state Superintendent of Public Instruction‘s website and designating one person in each school district as the contact for bullying and harassment complaints.
Reports of bullying and harassment initially will still be dealt with at the student’s school, Ballbach said. “If it continues to be persistent and severe, that’s when this new complaint process kicks in.”
The school district has set timelines for responding to the complaints and providing greater protection to students, Ballbach said.
Once a school receives a written report outlining an alleged problem with harassment, bullying or intimidation, families will be notified within two days, she said.
The school’s investigation must be completed within five school days. Two days after the investigation is complete, parents of the student who made the complaint as well as the parents of the student aggressor will be notified of the results.
Students who violate the policy may be disciplined, referred to counseling, or, if serious enough, the cases may be referred to local police.
Reports from each school in the district will be reviewed by one administrator, to better monitor the type and number of problems that occur.
Jokes and comments about a student’s sexual orientation or religion were just some of the harassment and bullying problems reported by Everett students last year as part of the statewide Healthy Youth Survey.
Another common complaint was use of cell phones and computers used to bully and harass other students. Some 13.4 percent of tenth graders said they had encountered similar problems in the month preceding the survey.
The school district bans cyber bullying while students are on school grounds, said Mary Waggoner, school district spokeswoman.
The problem most frequently occurs during off-school hours, she said, but the impact can spill over into the school, she said.
Some students as young as nine or 10 years old have Facebook accounts, even though Facebook’s policy is that no one younger than 13 can sign up, she said.
“It is clear from some of those youngsters’ pages that they are not being helped to understand the boundaries of their own behavior or respectful treatment of others,” she said.
Some schools took action even prior to the state deadline.
Elizabeth Nunes, assistant principal at Gateway Middle School, said she was frustrated by how common the problems of bullying and harassment were, despite frequent reminders that it was inappropriate.
“We weren’t putting much of a dent in it,” she said. “Every year it was the same stuff.”
That led to a new program. Last November, 10 seventh grade girls started meeting during lunch.
“One of the most prevalent things we see is the ‘mean girls’ syndrome, she said. “By seventh grade, they’ve made their friendships and cliques. That’s where the cruel behavior goes on.”
Girls in the group had been victims or bystanders to bullying, or participated in the harassment themselves, she said. They talked of the emotional impact caused by harassment and bullying.
One parent talked to the group about her own middle school experiences, telling the girls that even 30 years later she could remember the hurt caused by her classmates’ taunts.
Word of the group’s work spread. Some middle school boys asked if they could attend, too.
Midway through the 2010-11 school year, suspensions for harassment and bullying were reduced by 40 percent over the previous year, Nunes said.
“What I’ve realized is the biggest bang for the buck is working with bystanders,” those, who by their silence allow bullying and harassment to occur, she said. It turns out that involvement of bystanders can also bring such behavior to a halt.
“We won’t change all the bullying behavior,” Nunes said. “What we can change… is getting students to simply ask the question, “Why are you doing that? What did they do to you? It’s powerful.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.