WASHINGTON — Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has joined with Democratic senators from around the country to address bullying in the nation’s schools, and to build upon anti-bullying approaches in Vermont.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate last week with more than 30 Democrat co-sponsors, would require schools that receive federal funding to prohibit bullying and harassment, including conduct based on a student’s “actual or perceived” race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion, among other categories.
S.2572, in building upon Vermont’s anti-bullying legislation, aims to make sure that unchecked bullying and harassment is being addressed head-on in schools and online, according to a release sent by Leahy’s office.
A study by the Department of Education shows that one in five children between the ages of 12 and 18 will be affected by bullying at some point.
Bernice Garnett, chair of the Vermont Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council — a group set up by the Vermont Secretary of Education in 2012 — said that Vermont’s policies on harassment are exemplary in many ways.
“There’s a gap of what the policies are and what’s implemented in schools potentially, but Vermont policy is quite strong in explicitly naming that bullying and hazing are not acceptable,” she said.
About the kinds of consequences students should face, Garnett said suspensions and expulsions are not effective in changing behavior, and discipline should not be “zero tolerance” or even “disproportionate” on certain demographic groups of students.
“Exclusionary discipline disproportionately affects students of color and students of disability,” she said. “I do not believe in zero tolerance policies, and I do not think they’re effective in being a deterrent for bullying behavior or other behaviors.”
Jim Avery, principal of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vt., said the school follows specific protocols and processes where bullying and harassment are investigated, and administrators appropriately respond to reported bullying incidents.
“We are a ‘PBIS’ school — positive behavioral interventions and supports. We’re also looking at ways in which we are promoting the positive behaviors that we look for in our students,” Avery said.
He thinks this approach, which involves making presentations to students, is a positive way to decrease bullying.
“[We seek] anything we can add to support how we respond and how we do things within our schools to promote positive behaviors,” he said. “So, having individuals come in and present positive character development, that’s really great.”
Avery added that reports on bullying against a person’s race or gender is considered harassment and is followed by a different disciplinary procedure.
“Race and gender would fall into the harassment category. If we’re talking about race, we have other protocols that we follow,” he said.
Briana Bocelli is a freelance writer for True North Reports. She lives in the Northeast Kingdom and is a senior at Castleton University.