by Matthew Strong
On Thursday a joint panel of the House and Senate Education committees heard an update from the Hazing, Harassment, and Bullying Advisory Council. The chairman of the council, Tracey Tsugawa gave testimony of the work that had been done over the past year. She discussed the three prioritized issues they have been focused on, which was data collection, student leadership, and pre-service and in-service staff development.
She highlighted the results of the listening tour they completed in October of 2013. Council members visited five different schools throughout the state to meet with students directly in Winooski, Newport, Hartford, Brattleboro, and Brandon. They learned a lot from the direct contact, although according to their handouts for the panel, they don’t yet have specific recommendations for legislators other than to “note the ongoing need for funding to support continuing statewide efforts to provide resources and training for schools.”
Several students from across the state were in attendance and are part of the council. The panel heard from two of them. They testified that while it has always been an issue in schools but as our society retreats increasingly into the online world and communication becomes more anonymous, for many children the experiences have been intensifying. As school administrators and teachers have gotten busier, their ability to follow up and make sure the abuse is not continuing off school property or online has become less possible and less realistic.
Many comments were made concerning a pilot project to conduct a “School Climate Survey” that several people suggested should become part of the larger school accountability matrix. The New England Equity Assistance Center has offered free assistance in collecting and analyzing data from schools to be chosen at random to do surveys with both students and teachers.
“Government is good at protecting rights… but I don’t know if we are good at affecting attitudes. I wish we could …Government is a fairly clumsy thing. We can build a highway, we can win a war, set up a national park, I don’t know if we can make people be kinder…we can give someone a right, as in the right to not be treated is some way” Senator Dick McCormack said in response to testimony from Charles Johnson, of the Agency of Education. Johnson replied by discussing a speech by FDR concerning rights i.e. the right to a job, but concluded “…it’s not that you know the details of it, but you can encourage the aura of kindness“ replied Johnson. He also cautioned legislators about adding more to educators and administrators already “overburdened” list of expectations while at the same time asking them to make do with “less resources.”
One of the principals who gave testimony was VT Principal’s Association President Dean Stearns. He shared a very personal story of how his own children were bullied to the point that they actually moved to give one of his children a new environment in a different school. “We live where we live because of bullying… Luckily I had the financial means to move my family. We love where we live in Sharon and we we’re there because of school choice to be honest with you.”
“Many times I am asked to become an investigator in these situations, when I am not trained to do so” said Stearns.
Senator McCormack asked the council “What is “the ask”? What would you like to see from us? Can you handle it administratively or do you need the law to change?” From the back corner of the room where Secretary Holcome had moved to accommodate those providing testimony she said “I don’t think we’re ready to say for sure.”