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Stillwater suicide sparks questions about effective bullying reporting laws

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
September 28, 2012

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The loss of 13 year old Cade Poulos will stay with his family, friends, and the Stillwater community forever. The smiling eighth grader had only attended Stillwater Junior High School for six weeks before he killed himself in the hallway Wednesday morning. On a facebook page remembering his life, friends often cited bullying of Cade. But the family says it wasn’t an issue. And Stillwater Public Schools administrators say they have no record of abusive behavior towards Cade. But back to bullying…whether it happened or not…what’s required of schools?

The move towards protecting students from bullies really became reality in 2002. That’s when the state Legislature passed the School Bullying Prevention Act, later signed by Republican Governor Frank Keating. Since then, little significant change. A 2011 proposal aimed at cyber bullying didn’t make it to the Governor’s desk. Senator Jim Halligan was one of the sponsors…

“It is not unusual for a bill to take several years in order to pass the legislative process, because superintendents and principals want to have a chance and the opportunity to review it with their board.”

But let’s get out of the legislative chamber and inside the schools. To first take action against bullies, teachers, staff, or school administrators have to witness harassment, intimidation, or bullying themselves, or get alerted by students or parents. That’s where things get tricky, says Representative Anastasia Pittman. There’s a lot of options, including forms on the State Board of Education’s website

“But there’s no direct or clear directive as to what you do as a parent with those forms, or what you do as a student with those forms. We don’t know if they’re supposed to go to the principal, or does the parent fill it out and send it back to the state Department of Ed?”

And when they get into the hands of school staff, state law requires they report the incident. Then the investigation begins. David Hargrove is director of counseling at Stillwater Public Schools. He says they sort through surveillance cameras, text messages, and whatever hard evidence they can get their hands on. Hargrove says it’s difficult filtering out simple conflict reports…

“I’d say daily there’s conflicts, depends on what day it is.”

And how many of those turn into bullying reports?

“I think the superintendent received less than ten bullying reports for last year.”

And that’s of the incidents that are actually reported. There’s no explicit punishment if teachers or staff keep it to themselves. Nothing in state law, and nothing in Stillwater’s official policies and procedures. But David Hargrove contends teachers know what would happen if they didn’t step forward.

“They would make a determination based on the severity of the situation and they would deal with that employee at their discretion.”

Remember, less than ten bullying reports for Stillwater, a school district of 5,900 students. What about Cade’s case?

How confident are you that there is no record that bullying did not occur?

“I can’t address that.”

And in Edmond, more than three times as large as Stillwater schools, just thirteen faced disciplinary action from bullying.

Beyond setting up a framework, the state largely permits schools to put together their own procedures. In Stillwater, as is common in most Oklahoma communities, there is no timeframe for following up on the report, and Representative Anastasia Pittman says most districts just lack a whole lot of requirements.

“It depends on your definition of what reporting is. As long as I write it down on a piece of paper and forward it to the principal or the counselor or what they’re individual school districts require, I’m done.”

Representative Lee Denney is perhaps on the forefront of the issue. She put together the 2011 anti-cyber bullying proposal. And she says punishment for non-reporters may be needed to become a part of the discussion.

“Actually something that we definitely need to look at. You know penalties, loss of job, stuff like that is ideas that we can look at.”

Again, Representative Pittman…

“In Oklahoma, we’re leading the way in a negative way, by not putting teeth to the policies we have in place.”

So once a student has actually stepped forward to protect a classmate, that report could make it all the way to the superintendent’s desk, or it could stay right with their teacher. The reporter would have to jump the ladder to the principal or district administration. Otherwise, bullying may never be known.

One Response to “Stillwater suicide sparks questions about effective bullying reporting laws”

  1. Dr. T. L. Miller says:

    Teachers need to be vigilent, especially during passing period. I am a retired high school and middle school administrator and there is a reason why we always asked teachers to stand at their doors during passing period so they could intervene if something began to happen. Unfortunately too many teachers see actual acts of bully as "kids being kids." To the bullies and to the child being bullied, those teachers are giving tacit approval of what is going on. Can you imagine how the kid who is being bullied feels when he or she knows an adult is watching it happening to him or her?

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