Bully prevention task force meets in Clearwater

The Kansas State Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon Bully Prevention Task Force met Tuesday at the South Central Education Service Center in Clearwater.  

Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson announced the formation of the Task Force in March, citing data that 28 percent of students in grades six through twelve experience bullying. Watson said, “Everywhere I go, parents want to discuss this issue.” Bullying has also been debated by the Kansas Legislature and several bills have been proposed over the past several years. The state anti-bullying statute was adopted in 2007 and revised in 2008. The task force will meet across the state over the summer and fall and will present recommendations to the 2020 Kansas Legislature.  

The Task Force is co-chaired by Dr. Rick Ginsberg, Dean of the University of Kansas School of Education, and James Regier, Superintendent of Remington-Whitewater USD 206.  

“There are no easy answers [to solve bullying], but with the group assembled here, I believe progress can be made,” Regier said. 

KASB President-Elect Lori Blake of the Southeast of Saline USD 306 Board of Education and KASB Assistant Executive Director for Legal Services Donna Whiteman represent KASB on the task force. 

In Clearwater, the Task Force reviewed data from the Kansas Communities that Care (KCTC) Survey, a confidential, anonymous assessment of school climate. In one measure, 56 percent of depressed students reported bullying, while 81 percent of non-depressed students reported no bullying in school.  

Task force members asked if there is a definition of “bullying” in the KCTC survey and whether the data is broken out by such factors as immigration status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. While the survey defines “electronic bullying,” it does not offer a definition of general bullying. The survey also doesn’t ask students to report sexuality. The instrument does ask for gender in reference to whether a respondent is depressed. KCTC Survey staff from the Greenbush educational service center noted some larger school districts may have some data on student race or ethnicity but privacy laws prevent smaller districts from collecting that information.  

Survey staff recommended the Task Force encourage local examination of school climate through the KCTC Survey; maintain parental consent for students to participate in the survey but allow families to opt out rather than opt in, as is currently the case; and increase awareness by sharing data and successes with communities across the state. Task Force members recommended the survey contain a better, general description of “bullying.” 

Sharon Kniss of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) briefed the task force on the institute’s Restorative Schools Initiative. Kniss said restorative justice is a “holistic, common sense” way of looking at the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional factors that contribute to school behavior issues. It focuses on building teacher/staff-student relationships and a strong school culture that will allow for appropriate and effective responses to issues such as bullying.  

“We’re looking at addressing the underlying issues and disrupting the cycles of bullying” by showing the impact of bad behavior and giving victims of bullying a voice and safety,” Kniss said. “Transforming school culture is preventive in itself.”  

Each meeting of the Blue Ribbon Bully Prevention Task Force includes a public comment time. In Clearwater, Belle Plaine USD 357 Superintendent James Sutton said the problem of bullying is real and requires a response by all. Sutton is concerned, however, that misunderstandings and exaggerations of bad behavior, amplified by social media, lead to confusion about actual bullying behavior. “Accuracy is key,” Sutton said. The guidelines for public comment, whether in person or in writing, are here. 

Liz Hamer of the Kansas chapter of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) offered the organization’s work as a resource for the Task Force. “Our research-based interventions work well with the KIPCOR interventions and lead to safer schools,” Hamer said. She said information from 2015 and 2017 shows that LGBT+ students are at the biggest risk for suicidality. “We need more data on this group,” Hamer said. GLSEN also offers school districts a free, local school climate survey.  

“It’s interesting to hear the statewide perspective about the need to define ‘bullying’,” said KASB’s Blake. “It’s critical that KASB have representation on the Task Force because the primary tone I’ve heard thus far is not from a policy standpoint. Remembering the role local boards have in implementing policy to impact students while reviewing definitions and practices to make positive change will be critical for the coming months.” 

Blake said public comments will be critical to the Task Force’s work. 

“I’m encouraging local boards to engage parents and students so their voices are heard,” she said. 

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