Surveys show that 85 percent of students have witnessed bullying, but that adults see only about one-third of these incidents.
And when they see it or even perpetrate it, they might not recognize the actions as bullying.
Providing a clear definition of bullying and making it easier for witnesses to report the behavior are major goals of a proposed Bexley school district policy discussed at a Nov. 1 forum.
The policy will receive its first reading at the Nov. 19 school board meeting.
At the forum, parent Jennifer Waterman related that, while dropping off her kindergartner at school, she saw four girls surrounding and screaming at another child who was crying.
No teachers were around. When Waterman ordered the girls to leave the victim alone, they denied that they were bullying her because there was no physical contact.
That is the attitude the policy is meant to dispel.
"If you’re not punching someone, it’s still bullying," explained Susan Steinman, the district’s coordinator of its Operation Respect program.
The policy defines bullying as taking place "when an individual or group intentionally keeps hurting, frightening, threatening or excluding others, or participates in organizing others to do so."
This can include assaults that are verbal, written (including email), relational or physical, the policy states.
The document also lays out procedures for addressing complaints against students and against school personnel, and for taking disciplinary action.
In the case of a complaint against a student, the policy mandates that a staff member receiving a complaint or witnessing a violation must intervene and document the incident. A parent or guardian can also file a complaint.
The report is to be forwarded to the building administrator, and parents of both the victim and perpetrator are to be notified. If the charges are substantiated, disciplinary action can be taken.
The policy makes it the responsibility of the school to address the issue, Steinman said.
But students have a large role in countering bullying, as well, added teacher Eric Acton, who is also a half-time coordinator of anti-bullying efforts this year.
With 30 teachers and 400 kids in a building, the adults aren’t going to see everything, Acton observed, so it’s important to make the kids feel comfortable in coming forward.
"It has to be children taking care of children," Acton said.
Having written reports will ensure accountability and can reveal patterns of behavior, Acton said.
Consequences are not meant to be strictly punitive, the staffers said.
"It’s not about labeling children, it’s about educating them," Steinman said.
The district has been active for over a year in promoting this change in the school climate, through Operation Respect and the Second Step program for elementary students.
Parents at Cassingham Elementary have been recruited as monitors on the playground, identified as an area where bullying frequently occurs.
Once a week Acton meets with fifth and sixth graders who voluntarily gather during their lunch period to discuss their concerns. About half of the students have been attending the sessions, he said.
Acton and other staff members are researching programs that can be implemented for the middle and high schools.
High school student council representative Jason Soll said such a program should make coming forward "the cool thing to do" and should let students know that help is always available.
The educators concede that it will take a long time to change entrenched behaviors and attitudes, possibly as long as 10 years, Steinman said.
Under the policy, the committee would be required to report the number of incidents documented to the school board twice a year.
A committee of school staff, parents and students have been working on the draft of the anti-bullying policy since May, according to Anne Hyland, director of curriculum and instruction.
The state Department of Education has mandated that all districts have a policy in place by Dec. 31, but Bexley is ahead of most and is being contacted as a model, Hyland said.
Promoting the social and emotional development of children is the second of the district’s six strategic priorities.
Before Superintendent Michael Johnson was hired, he voiced that commitment by stating that school "should be the safest place on the planet for children."
That applies to anyone in the building. Hyland recalled an incident during construction when a worker was reported to be making inappropriate comments to female students.
The company was contacted and the worker did not return, Hyland said.
Bexley parent and Montrose Elementary teacher Linda Hodge praised the teachers at the high school for making connections with each student.
She suggested that such relationship-building be included in the curriculum.
School board member Joan Fishel noted that policies are never written in stone and can be revised.
The proposed policy can be viewed on the district’s web site, www.bexley.k12.oh.us, and comments can be forwarded to the superintendent or the committee members.