Superintendent Outlines Bullying Policy at School Committee Meeting

By Adam Swift

Superintendent of Schools Lisa Howard gave a broad overview of the school district’s bullying prevention plan and how the district responds to reports of bullying incidents at Monday night’s School Committee meeting.

“There have been some questions around bullying and Winthrop Public Schools reaction and response and an understanding of how it works,” said Howard.

Howard noted that every school district in the state is required to submit a bullying prevention plan to the Department of Education every two years.

“We are committed to making our schools a safe and caring environment for all of our students and won’t tolerate bullying or harassment at any level,” said Howard. “However, in schools, especially in our elementary and middle schools, bullying and teasing can have distinct differences, although they can sometimes overlap.”

That distinction between teasing and bullying can sometimes be difficult for parents or family members to understand, said Howard.

“Sometimes, a parent or a family member might report that a child is being bullied, but it’s upon the school district to determine if it is actually bullying or if it is an incident,” said Howard. “That varies, and if you ask any middle school teacher, they are dealing with incidents just by the nature of grades six, seven, and eight.”

Grades three through five and the middle school are the busiest groups when it comes to bullying or harassment coming up as a subject from parents and other students, Howard said.

Howard said the bullying prevention plan is in the school handbooks and on the school websites, as well as the incident reporting forms so they can report any incidents anonymously. That incident report immediately goes to staff who can then begin the investigation process.

“Bullying involves repeated and intentional acts of aggression or harm toward somebody who may have difficulty defending themselves, and often involves a power imbalance where the bully has more power or influence over the victim,” said Howard. “Bullying can be physical, it can be verbal, it can be emotional, and it can be done through cyber or on social media or the internet. It causes significant distress and harm to the person who is targeted.”

Teasing, Howard said, is usually less severe and can involve playful or lighthearted between peers and is typically consensual among both parties with no intention to cause harm.

“However, it is important to note that teasing can cross the line if it becomes more hurtful, if it becomes more malicious or persistent despite someone else’s discomfort, which includes saying leave me alone, don’t do that to me,” said Howard. “So for us, it is crucial to address both bullying and teasing in school and to ensure that it is a respectful environment for everybody.”

The superintendent said the bullying prevention is not just specific to students, but also to staff.

“You might not think about it, but it can happen within your work environment, as well,” said Howard.

Howard also outlined the investigation process when there is a report of bullying or other incident.

“When we are investigating bullying in the schools, it requires a thorough and thoughtful process with multiple steps to gather accurate information that we need as administrators and people trained in bullying,” said Howard.

There is an initial assessment of the report, usually by an administrator followed by an investigation that can include conversations with those involved as well as other documentation.

Howard also addressed some of the frustrations that parents or other family members may feel when reporting an incident.

“Under federal law, we can’t talk to anyone else about a child, we can only talk to you about your child, and I know that can be frustrating,” said Howard. “The goal is for people to trust us that we are following our own protocols, which I believe is stronger than what the state puts out for what you have to do.”

Results of an investigation can run the gamut from a conversation with students, to the employment of support services from the staff or outside agencies, to getting the District Attorney’s office involved in especially serious incidents.

There is also a record keeping system that allows the district to keep track of students who have incidents and what the mitigation for those incidents was.

When investigating a reported incident, Howard said the district looks at the intent, whether there is a history of repeated behavior from the person being accused, and what the power dynamics are between the accused and accuser.

Over the past five years, Howard said one of the most important moves the district has taken is involving the parents when it comes to the mitigation and consequences for students involved in bullying or another incident.

“If we don’t involve the parents, the conversation ends at the doors of the school,” said Howard.

Monitoring the situation is the final step the district takes to try to prevent the same type of situation from happening again.

For the bigger picture, Howard noted that there is a constant social-emotional learning curriculum in place across all grade levels that deals with bullying and harassment. She added that the role of school adjustment counselors has been a huge plus in the schools.

“We have been able to work with kids and manage behavior throughout the school day and the school year, which has been quite a benefit,” said Howard. “If I had a million dollars, I would say give me 25 more school adjustment counselors, and not just because of Covid, but because we are trying to adjust behaviors on a day-to-day basis.”

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