"All people are not heterosexual. Heterosexuality is not superior and is not the norm by which all other sexual orientation and gender identities are measured." --Burnaby, B.C. Schools Draft Policy #5.45

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vague vs. Specific Bullying Policies

In a discussion on CNN in 2010, Candi Cushman from Focus on the Family, Eliza Byard from GLSEN, and Rosalind Wiseman, an author and bullying expert, talked about the Safe Schools Improvement Act and what kind of anti-bullying policy was the most effective.  

Part of the debate was on Ms. Cushman's belief that the Safe Schools Improvement Act was a Trojan horse for advancing pro-sexual minority ideas in schools.

Another part was on the necessity of having a list of characteristics, as the Act would require (e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability) that bullies are prohibited from targeting.  Ms. Cushman asserted that bullies target a variety of characteristics in their victims, such as wearing glasses, or being overweight, thus creating the risk that the bullying of children for off-list characteristics would go unaddressed by schools.  Better to focus on the bully, Ms. Cushman said.

According to Ms. Byard and Ms. Wiseman, however, being specific about what's not allowed goes to the heart of what makes an effective policy that actually reduces bullying.

Ms. Byard's key points:
1. Evidence shows that if the policy isn't specific, teachers don't act.
2. Evidence shows that rates of harassment go down when the policy is specific.
3. When policies mention sexual orientation and gender identity, there is less overall bullying.

Ms. Wiseman's key points (quotation marks reflect original language, not irony):
1. It's essential to mention sexual orientation, because bullying goes hand in hand with homophobia.  When one kid wants to stop an incident of bullying, another kid will say, "Don't be gay".  Stopping anti-sexual minority bullying therefore, frees other kids to speak up when all kinds of bullying occur.      
2. General policies put the "onus" of establishing that bullying occurred on the victim.  If you take out the specific language, kids have a harder time "defining", or articulating, what happened, and results in the school's whole anti-bullying effort coming to nothing.  

What does a general policy look like?  My former middle school has one.  This is from the "school handbook", which contains all of the school's policies regarding student behavior, from the dress code, to cafeteria behavior, to the use of cell phones in school, and so on. Here is the section titled "Bullying Policy":
Students are expected to treat one another with civility and respect.  Acts of harassment, intimidation, or bullying are not tolerated.  Such acts have the effect of insulting or demeaning a pupil or group of pupils, and must be reported to the principal.  Disciplinary action will be taken in accordance with the New Jersey Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) policy.
The policy seems to recognize that particular characteristics are targeted ("group of pupils"), but it doesn't "name the behavior", as Ms. Wiseman and Ms. Byard think is essential to be effective.  

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