COMMENTARY: Progress made on reducing school bullying in Delaware but more work to do

During my time as lieutenant governor, I began spending significant amounts of time inside our public schools talking to teachers, students and staff. The more I did, it became clear to me that bullying was a significant issue in our education system that affected kids’ ability to learn, and teachers’ ability to teach. Over the last few years, we have made real progress in combating bullying, but some of the toughest work is yet to come.

The first-hand impression I developed of bullying in our schools was borne out by both local and national statistics.

A 2013 survey published in the national Journal of Adolescent Health suggested that bullying was a significant problem, affecting between 20 and 56 percent of young people annually; that specific sub-groups such as gay and lesbian students were far more likely to be victims; that bullying was associated with poor mental and physical health and risky behaviors; and that there was an association between bullying and depression and suicide-related behaviors.

The National Center for Education Statistics developed similar numbers: it estimated that 28 percent of middle school aged children were bullied.

Locally, a 2013 Delaware study conducted by the University of Delaware Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies indicated that 18 percent of high school students reported being bullied on school property in the prior 12 months, and the same study showed that 14 percent of high school students reported being the victims of cyberbullying in the same time period.

Matthew Denn

After I became attorney general, I had the opportunity to see firsthand how the Department of Justice could helpfully intervene in individual bullying incidents in our schools. The Department of Justice has, for about five years, had an “ombudsman” on staff to intervene with schools on issues of school violence and school bullying.

On those occasions when the ombudsman has become involved in cases, he has been a very effective advocate for parents in situations where schools have not treated bullying incidents with sufficient gravity. However, very few parents or students know that the Department of Justice is available to become involved in these bullying incidents.

Earlier this year, we asked the General Assembly to address this gap by requiring that schools provide every parent or guardian of a student involved in an alleged bullying incident a form generated by the Department of Justice informing the parent of the availability of the ombudsman’s assistance.

The requirement that this form be distributed just took effect at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, and we are optimistic that it will result in additional involvement by our ombudsman in bullying incidents and more satisfactory outcomes for victims and their parents.

After my years of firsthand involvement in this issue, I am convinced schools that create a culture among their students where diversity is valued and tolerance is expected, will see less bullying.

Students know that they are not supposed to bully other students, so I do not believe that programs and campaigns designed to simply hammer home this message add a great deal of value in a vacuum. What does add value is programming that also pushes back against the tendency to ostracize or demean other students.

My experience has also left me with two related impressions. The first is that these messages of valuing diversity and encouraging tolerance are most impactful at the middle school and high levels when they come from other students. And the second is that in this era of social media, smart phones, and the like, that the mechanisms by which we communicate with students about bullying must line up with the way that students receive information today.

To that end, my office is actively meeting with a wide group of experts, and we are hoping to soon unveil a model anti-bullying program for schools that will incorporate all of these ideas, and take advantage of the expertise and experience of people knowledgeable in this subject area.

If we can effectively communicate the right messages to students in our schools, we will be able to build upon the legal and regulatory changes we have made over the last three years and make our schools even more safe and hospitable to our state’s children.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matthew Denn is the attorney general of Delaware.

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