YORK, Maine — Last fall, many York High School students rallied behind a gay ninth-grader who was the alleged victim of bullying, demanding that school officials urgently work to end what they saw as a pervasive problem. Seven months later, a draft bullying policy has been created that clearly lays out definitions, provides unequivocal disciplinary actions, and sets up protocols to support victims.
The draft policy was created by a committee of administrators, community members and students — who committee colleagues said were pivotal to the creation of the document that finally emerged. The group met throughout the winter and into the spring to craft the policy.
“This has actually been a rare opportunity to change the way the school district approaches bullying,” committee member and YHS Senior Karsten Rees said. “It’s obviously an important issue and students were an important part of the process which began last November. It’s been nice to see the policy take shape and to exercise our democratic muscles and be part of the process.”
The committee was co-chaired by assistant principals Ellen Connell of York High and Jay Delehanty of York Middle School, and included, in addition to Rees, YHS students Sophie Blanchard, Danielle O’Connell, Joe Graziano and Samantha Corbett.
The policy is intended to govern both schools and all students from fifth to 12th grade. The School Committee received the draft at its June 6 meeting; it now has to go through several readings and perhaps changes along the way before it’s adopted.
The committee began its work by reviewing state and federal bullying policy and from that crafted the draft policy. Among the highlights:
— Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be reported, over time.”
The simplified version of that definition is “being mean over and over again,” said Delehanty. To that end, the York High and York Middle School handbooks will distill the policy into language that students can understand. The student members of the committee were adamant about the need for this. “It’s a term we hear a lot but it’s not really transparent to a lot of students,” said Rees. “So a clear, simplified definition is important because I didn’t know what it was and I doubt a lot of students do.”
— Cyberbullying is included in the definition of bullying. There are “unique concerns” about cyberbullying, the policy states, because digital devices offer opportunities 24 hours a day and most information, unless deleted, is “permanent and public” and so could affect such things as college admission or employment. If the cyberbullying does not occur at the school, but “infringes on the rights of the (bullied) student at school,” then it will be governed by the policy. Cyberbullying outside of school grounds should be reported to police, as well, the policy states.
— The draft policy mandates that teachers and administrators report incidents of bullying and strongly encourages students, coaches and others involved with students to do the same. Going forward, students said it’s very important that there also be a prominent way for students to anonymously file reports. While there are online and paper forms available, the students said they are not easily accessible.
Also contained in the reporting section is the creation of an outside ombudsman who will be appointed each September and will be available as needed if parents or students do not feel their concerns have been adequately addressed by administrators. The ombudsman will act as an intermediary until the issue is resolved.
— Remediation/disciplinary actions recognize that there are various levels of bullying, and that teasing is not the same as a racial epithet or physical contact. The policy outlines a series of student behaviors and ramifications of first, second and third incidents of that behavior. All require written apologies and inhouse and possible out of school suspension. The discipline becomes more severe with each incident. If the transgressor’s behavior veers into the criminal, police will be contacted.
— The policy also outlines support measures for the victim, including a safe place in school where students who fear bullying can congregate and talk; measures to keep victims informed of what has been done since the case was referred to administration; and faculty training on how to mediate disputes that might lead to bullying.
One of the hallmarks of the policy is that students will be required to sign an agreement indicating that he or she has read the policy and agrees to abide by its requirements. In addition, the student and parent/guardian must sign an anti-bullying contract. The students agree that they understand the implications of bullying; the parent that he or she has “instructed my child to respect the rights of other students and act appropriately toward other students.”
“This creates a binding contract that you will not be a bully and that you will also be an upstander (someone who doesn’t support bullying behavior),” said Delehanty. “If there are issues with a bully, and there’s a contract between student, parent and administrators, we’re all on the same page. We all acknowledge there’s a negative issue and we all agree there needs to be a change.”
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