“I have reported the bullying to my principal, but nothing has happened. It’s still going on. What can I do?” I often get questions like this from parents and teachers who want to help their students. I am sharing some tips I have developed to guide adults as they try to work with their school communities to be more responsive to concerns about bullying, harassment, and related safety issues.
1. Document Everything
This is one of the most essential things for both the adult and student to do. The student needs to document every interaction that shows a pattern of repeated, targeted bullying and harassment. Either on a page in their notebook or with a cell phone (using the camera, audio memos, notepad, or other apps), they should document the following: date, time, location, people involved, description, and list of witnesses.
Adults should keep track of every phone call, email, and face-to-face conversation related to the topic: date, time, mode of communication, summary of the interaction. If it was a face-to-face conversation, it is helpful to follow up with an email that says something to the effect of, “I wanted to write you to follow up on our conversation today. We discussed… and we agreed that you would… and I would…” This way everyone has a clear and shared understanding of what was said and what would happen.
2. Empower your child/student
If your child or student is feeling targeted and vulnerable, then it is important to empower them and include them in the problem-solving process as much as possible – keeping in mind their age, language skills, and emotional readiness. For younger elementary students it may be as simple as asking them, “If you could wave a magic wand to fix this problem, what would you wish for?” For older children you can have a more in-depth conversation about how they feel and what are some things that would make them feel safer at school. It is important to keep them informed about the steps you are taking so they know that you are advocating for them, but you don’t want them to feel overwhelmed by the process. Each child/student is different, so use your unique knowledge about this person to guide the level of involvement of your child/student. It also may be helpful to remind them that they may not be the only one feeling this way, so you aren’t only advocating for them, but you are trying to make the school better for all students.
3. Find allies and advocates
If the principal or school counselor hasn’t been immediately responsive to your concerns, it is useful to seek out other individuals in the school who may be able to help find creative solutions to the problem. For parents, you can reach out to the school nurse, the homeroom teacher, a different administrator, or the school secretary. Each of these folks have an insider’s understanding of the school’s culture and may be able to connect you with other staff at the school or school district who can assist you. For teachers, having careful conversations with your colleagues to find out who also works with the students involved and may be having similar difficulties can help you share strategies and develop more unified responses. Also seeking support from your district office or county office of education might connect you with additional local expertise. Finally, for both parents and teachers, find out of there are local or statewide advocacy groups that might have additional information to help you. Local chapters of GLSEN, the ACLU, and anti-bullying projects are helpful places to start. Here in the central coast of California, we have recently established the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools to help schools better address these issues and to support and advocate for students and families.
4. Develop a collaborative relationship
Often parents who are advocating for their child can be very upset about the experience they are having with the school. This strong emotional response can lead to accusations and heated conversations that can put school personnel on the defensive. Try to approach the school as partners in addressing this problem. These school professionals are people you need to care about this issue, but it is difficult for them to have empathy and see issues from your point of view when they are feeling attacked. The more you can approach the school with the perspective of trying to share information with them so they can better serve ALL students, they may feel less defensive and more willing to receive the information you have to share with them.
5. Focus on the facts
Now that you have documented everything, try to keep the focus on the facts in your conversations. These are highly emotional topics and the more our emotions get involved the harder it can be to find common ground and work towards solutions together. If you can emphasize the pattern of behavior you and your child/student have documented in meetings and conversations, you all can stay focused on how to address these patterns. Being informed about your school district’s policies and relevant state and federal laws can also help frame the conversation in terms that are widely accepted and have clear consequences. The more you can use terms and phrases that the professionals are already familiar with, the more likely you will get a more organized and clear response.
6. Research relevant laws & policies
Do your homework and read your school district’s policies on safety, bullying, and non-discrimination. These policies should list prohibited behaviors and indicate the response protocols that should be implemented when these behaviors are observed or reported. You may need to file a formal report in order to initiate these protocols. If illegal behavior has been involved (physical or sexual assault, vandalism, stalking, cyberbullying, etc.) is involved you may also want to make a simultaneous report to the local law enforcement. Schools may try to discourage this so they can handle matters internally, but if they have a pattern of not responding clearly and promptly, then you must consider this option to keep your child/student as safe as possible.
Most states also have bullying laws – some are better than others. Read your state laws so you know what the standards are that schools are expected to uphold. My research in California indicates that many school policies are out of date and do not reflect updates in state laws. So be sure to read the school policies and check the date when they were passed. They may be missing new information passed at the state level. If the school district is out of compliance, or not responding to your reports in a timely fashion (7-10 business days), then you should consider going up the chain.
7. Go up the chain
In the state of California, there is a very clear flow chart for any report of bullying. Every district in the state uses a Universal Complaint Form and the graphic below illustrates the sequence of events when a form is filed. A recent audit of district bullying policies indicate that there are sometimes delays and conflicts of interest in investigating these reports. Do not hesitate to go to the County Office of Education or even the state Department of Education if you believe your complaint is not being handled properly at the district level. Also, if federal laws are involved (in cases of discriminatory harassment on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability) you can contact the Office for Civil Rights at the Federal Department of Education and file a complaint there as well. The American Civil Liberties Union has state chapters that may be able to assist you in navigating this process.
8. Take care of yourself
Advocacy work in the face of a resistant institution can be exhausting, depressing, and demoralizing. It is important to remember why you are doing this work and to ensure that you can continue advocating for your child/student. Give yourself permission to take a break when necessary and find folks who can help you release some frustration in healthy ways: running, hiking, reading, talking – whatever works for you. My training as an Emergency Medial Technician has always come in handy here: if you put yourself at risk, you can’t help anyone else. Its okay to take a break and step away from this work in order to allow you to keep going and be the best advocate you can be.
9. Remind your child/student they are loved
Research indicates that unconditional acceptance by family members provides some of the strongest protection for youth who experience hostility and violence at school and in the outside world. Continuing to affirm the child and remind them that they are not the problem, the system is, is something to do continuously throughout this process. Remember that you are doing all of this so they can be healthy and happy.
10. Keep all options on the table.
If none of these steps get the results you need, it may be time to consider other options. Not all families have as many options as others – particularly those in rural locations or families with limited resources or mobility – but if you can explore a: school transfer, inter-district transfer, private school, boarding school, online school, or home schooling these are all alternatives that might help this child/student have a more healthy and productive educational experience.
Finally, if at any time during this process you feel you want to connect your school with an expert to reinforce your message or to provide professional development for their staff, I provide these services as well. You can read more about my books, articles, and media interviews on this topic and consulting services at: www.elizabethjmeyer.com