The House Committee on Children last month introduced HB 5145, a bill that would eliminate the requirement of school boards to submit annual reports of “verified acts of bullying.”
Given the expanding public profile of bullying – and the substantiated increase in cyberbullying – the timing of this proposed bill is curious. Indeed, Connecticut just last year placed particular emphasis on curbing bullying in schools with its implementation of HB 7215, an act mandating the development of “safe school climate policies.”
Presumably, the Committee on Children has proposed HB 5145 because it believes the reporting requirement actually serves as a disincentive for schools to recognize bullying.
“The more incidents the school board reports … the worse the reputational damage to the school district,” explained the advocacy organization Special Education Equity for Kids (SEEK) in its public testimony regarding HB 5145. “The result has been that school officials frequently refuse to characterize as bullying behavior that is clearly bullying.”
Even so, SEEK opposes the bill and suggests modifying the reporting process to make it “meaningful and consistent across districts.”
Similarly, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) testified that “eliminating reporting requirements could compromise efforts to improve school learning conditions.”
SEEK and the CEA have a point: To address bullying effectively, schools must collect and report data, even if doing so represents another burden for already overwhelmed school districts. What’s more, HB 5145 sends the wrong message at a time when civility throughout society is in decline.
“A majority of Americans believe political, racial, and class divisions are getting worse,” according to a recent poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service. “Voters broadly agree with the premise that our political culture has become too uncivil and lacks a focus on solutions, and that common ground and compromise should be the goal for political leaders.”
Internet use and social media have exacerbated the problem, according to a joint study by Weber Shadwick and KRC Research: “Contributing heavily to the cause of online incivility is social media, with 63% of Americans saying that, in their experience, the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive.”
To be clear, bullying goes beyond incivility, as it represents “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 repeated, over time.”
Still, incivility and bullying are clearly intertwined, and they occur in many forms in schools. It might be the display of symbols with racist undertones or the use of words that are inherently – if not overtly – sexist, homophobic, or abusive in other ways. It doesn’t take much to imagine how such symbols or words emerge in the hallways, restrooms, and classrooms of American schools. Frankly, it happens every day, and for a variety of reasons.
Some students might parrot pop songs or share social-media memes that include ethnic slurs or contentious images, innocently oblivious to the reality that such expressions can offend peers. Other students know better and deliberately use offensive or hateful expressions because they see it as their Constitutional right to free speech. (It’s not.) In either instance, it’s wrong and needs to be called out.
Sadly, there are naysayers:
“We’re turning our kids into snowflakes.”
“This is just the latest example of political correctness gone wrong.”
“We can’t raise kids in a bubble – they need to learn how to face up to bullies!”
Yes, the unfortunate truth is that our kids will undoubtedly encounter bullies at school. But they’ll never learn the proper way to “face up to them” unless adults identify and address bullying behavior so kids can recognize it. And that starts with the establishment of rules for decency and civility that everyone in a school must follow.
HB 5145, therefore, should be defeated. By all means, improve the process for reporting bullying, but do not remove the requirement. Our entire society needs to meet the problem head-on if we want to rediscover some semblance of mutual respect. What’s more, if we don’t do it for the kids, no one will.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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