Iowa City School Board to revisit bullying policy

BY DEREK KELLISON | MAY 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa City School District officials are aiming to revise the district's bullying policy in light of concerns over clarity and punishments.

Board member Sarah Swisher said the current policy — which intensifies punishment from a warning on first incident to expulsion or possible police intervention as bullying incidents escalate — lacks some important measures.

"The language for the policy is very strong, but it's vague because it doesn't say what the consequences are," she said.

According to state and district policy, bullying is "any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct" which creates a "hostile school environment."

District Director of Equity Ross Wilburn said the district faces difficulty matching the sufficient punishment to the intensity of the bullying.

"The distinction between conflict and bullying is hard to understand," he said. "The incident has to meet a certain threshold which depends on the person filing the complaint."

Yet satisfaction with Iowa City school safety has stood around 90 percent since 2007 — almost 100 percent in 2011 — according to the district's Youth Survey of sixth-, eighth-, and 11th-grade students.

But the same surveys also showed 60 percent of students consistently reported bullying incidents involving verbal abuse. Swisher said the discrepancy between reports may come from students not knowing when to report bullying cases.

"We have made steady improvements [in school safety] over the years," she said. "But that doesn't mean there's no bullying going on."

Iowa City Education Association President Tom Yates, who brought the issue forward at a May 1 School Board meeting, also said the district needs to give more attention to bullying. The problem could be fixed, he said, by developing a board of student peers or by implementing more advertising for counseling.

Yet a focus on more effective punishment would best deter bullies who think they can get away with their actions, he added.

"We see instances all the time when bullying seems to work," Yates said. "But if you keep seeing this, you might think you can get away with it."

And bullying is hard to combat across the nation, according to a study by the National Technical Center of Positive Behavior Research. The study, completed in 2012, indicated 80 percent of bullying incidents give the bullies some kind of attention and likely lead them to continue their actions.

"The major challenge we face is creating an effective learning environment in school systems," said Rob Horner, Center director. "You can't just tell people not to bully."

Horner said the Center released a new program this year for addressing bullying nationwide called the Multi-Tiered Systems Report — which focuses on more intensive programs teaching students about bullying from the start of their education. The program is used in parts of Illinois, California, New Mexico, Maryland, and Iowa, though not currently in the Iowa City School District.

"The traditional punishment was to expel the 'bad [students,]' " he said. "The new way of thinking is to do what works for most and develop specialized programs that work with smaller groups."

The Iowa City School District Governance Committee plans to review the district bullying policy at a future date.

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