Connecticut Law Tribune, August 8, 2011
Tragic incidents such as the death of bullied student Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts have sharpened our national focus on the prevention of school bullying. Bullying is more than the media’s issue du jour; it warrants our close attention, particularly as the nature of student bullying is rapidly changing in the digital age.
Many states, including Connecticut, have recently passed or revised laws to clarify the legal obligations of public schools regarding bullying. Connecticut’s new legislation, Public Act 11-232, imposes stricter mandates for addressing incidents of school-based bullying, expands the public schools’ obligations to intervene in circumstances of off-campus and online bullying, and imposes broad new mandates to monitor and improve school climate.
The new legislation has a dual purpose: 1) to prescribe procedures for districts to identify and respond to specific acts of bullying; and 2) to mandate broad measures for districts to cultivate a positive school-wide environment.
In terms of identifying bullying, the new legislation defines bullying as communicative and physical acts that: cause physical or emotional harm to the targeted student; damage the student’s property; place the student in reasonable fear of harm, or of damage to property; create a hostile environment at school for the student; infringe on the rights of the student at school; or substantially disrupt the education process or the orderly operation of a school. It also separately defines and requires public schools to address cyberbullying.
In addition, the new law requires that school districts develop “safe school climate plans” and sets forth extensive procedural mandates delineating specific steps to prevent bullying, investigate allegations of bullying, and respond to verified incidents of bullying. The prescriptive requirements of the new legislation may lead to an overly narrow focus on procedural compliance when responding to specific instances of bullying rather than a wider focus on the elements of a positive school climate.
In terms of fostering a positive school climate, the new legislation includes mandates that require public schools to follow general practices to promote a safe and welcoming school climate. The “safe school climate plan” must be approved by the local or regional board of education and be submitted to the state Department of Education.
Other required steps include completion of school climate assessments for each school, in-service training for personnel, and establishment of a committee responsible for developing and fostering a safe school climate and addressing issues related to bullying in schools. The law also focuses on suicide prevention. By including this broad focus on school climate, the legislature recognized that a narrow focus on documentation, investigation, and intervention is insufficient.
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