Liberty County School System administrators gathered Wednesday and Thursday for instruction on the system’s new protocol for handling reports of bullying.
Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Conley redelivered information presented last week by Harbin, Hartley & Hawkins education attorney Reagan Sauls to ensure that each school is complying with more current interpretations of the term “bullying” as presented by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.
“When I was growing up, ‘bullying’ was just a word used to describe a fight or when someone was picking on someone else,” Conley said after the session. “Today it’s addressed in the law.”
In a May meeting, the Liberty County Board of Education approved a new bullying policy that calls for consistent investigating and documentation when reports of possible bullying are made, Conley said.
Now, each school will receive a folder that contains the system’s policy, protocols and paperwork needed to document possible bullying incidents consistently.
According to the code, bullying is defined as follows: “An act which occurs on school property, on school vehicles, at school bus stops, or at school-related functions or activities, or by use of data or software that is accessed through a computer, computer system, computer network or other electronic technology of a local school system, that is:
1. Any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury on another person, when accompanied by an apparent present ability to do so;
2. Any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm; or
3. Any intentional written, verbal or physical act, which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass or intimidate, that:
4. Causes another person substantial physical harm within the meaning of Code Section 16-5-23.1 or visible bodily harm as such term is defined in Code Section 16-5-23.1;
5. Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education;
6. Is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment; or
7. Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that harassment and discrimination now are separately defined from bullying, Conley added. “An incident can be one or the other, or both.”
According to the policy, harassment is any gesture or act that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic including race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or physical or mental disability.
When administrators receive reports of bullying, they are required to begin an investigation no later than the next school day, the deputy superintendent said. The law firm provided flowcharts that investigators should use to determine whether the offense falls into the bullying or harassment categories.
If investigators conclude that bullying did take place, they are required to send a form letter to parents of all children involved informing them of the incident. The accused student also should be charged with bullying and given an age-appropriate consequence as defined in the district’s progressive discipline plan detailed in the student code of conduct.
David Morgan, a Hinesville resident whose granddaughter is a first-grade student at Lyman Hall Elementary, said the school system does not do enough to punish those who engage in bullying.
His granddaughter — whom he declined to name, citing privacy concerns — has been kicked multiple times by a boy in her classes who he believes is a bully, he said.
“If your son or daughter got kicked one time, that’s considered bullying,” Morgan said. He also cited statistics about the number of children who report being affected by bullies and insisted that harsher punishment for a first offense is more likely to prevent repeat incidents.
“They say, ‘Well, it’s all part of being a kid.’ But nobody has the right to put their hands on anybody else,” Morgan said.
When asked about the situation, LCSS Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said the student who reportedly kicked Morgan’s granddaughter has behavioral issues that the school is working to resolve but declined to comment further, citing student privacy laws.
The student confidentiality laws often prevent parents from understanding all of the factors at play when classroom conflicts arise, Conley said. It also prevents them from knowing exactly how perceived bullies are being handled and disciplined.
During the training session, Division of Exceptional Learning Director Mindy Yanzetich asked how the legalities would affect students with disabilities whose behavioral challenges may manifest in ways that are perceived as bullying.
In such situations, different rules would apply, Conley said.
“However, there is a part in the definition that says it is our responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t happen again and that we have removed the bad environment,” she said, adding that when situations arise with students with disabilities, school administrators should contact the DEL office at the beginning of their investigations.
Furthermore, the policy states that if a student in grades six through 12 has committed the offense of bullying for the third time in a school year, that student should be assigned to an alternative school.
“Now, before you elementary people breathe a sigh of relief, you have to follow the same guidelines,” Conley said. “The only difference is it’s not in the law that they have to go to alternative elementary school.”