Back to School Basics on Harassment & Bullying in K-12 Public Schools

School starts in Washington State for most public schools this week. In Washington, we have almost 300 school districts and they educate more than one million students by more than 51,000 classroom teachers.

In each school district there are multiple schools (often referred to within the school administration culture as buildings). Each district is supposed to create its own policy for dealing with issues around discrimination and bullying. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which is the agency that oversees K-12 public education in Washington, has established model policies and procedures (more details below).

Each school district is supposed to identify a compliance office, both for Title IX and for bullying, harassment, and discrimination (you are correct if you think there are overlaps between Title IX and harassment and bullying). The compliance officer is supposed to be the primary contact regarding the anti-harassment, intimidation, and bullying policy, and the person who receives copies of all complaints. They are responsible for insuring the implementation of the HIB policy and procedure. As of the writing of this post, the list of compliance officers available is for the 2013-14 academic year. Technically this information is supposed to be provided in materials that go out to parents, but the reality is that it is often not provided. In fact, all too often, compliance officers do not even know that they are compliance officers. Despite the existence of a compliance officer, all staff are responsible for receiving oral and written reports.

Each school district is required to have their own policy and their own set of procedures for how to deal with bullying and harassment. The district policy has to either mirror the State Model Policy and the State Model Procedures or somehow improve upon the state policies. The District Policies can be incredibly hard to find. One tip that can help, is that they often use the same naming convention as the Statewide Policy (Policy No. 3207) and Procedure (Procedure No. 3207P). This means they have to have mechanisms for reports of harassment and bullying to be reported. They must have procedures for investigating the reports, timelines for investigating and reporting – the model policy requires a timely response – the whole process of complaint, investigation (5 days), report (2 days after the report), and appeals (file within 5 days, response within five to ten days). The focus and commitment is on making sure that schools are safe learning environments.

State Model Policy Highlights: 

“Harassment, intimidation, or bullying” means any intentionally written message or image—including those that are electronically transmitted—verbal, or physical act, including but not limited to one shown to be motivated by race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, including gender expression or identity, mental or physical disability or other distinguishing characteristics, when an act:

  • Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education.
  • Is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment.
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.

Nothing in this section requires the affected student to actually possess a characteristic that is a basis for the harassment, intimidation, or bullying.

State Model Procedure Highlights: 

  • Any school staff who observes, overhears, or otherwise witnesses harassment, intimidation, or bullying or to whom such actions have been reported must take prompt and appropriate action to stop the harassment and to prevent its re-occurrence.
  • Reports may be filed anonymously, confidentially, or non-confidentially, meaning the student may chose to disclose her/his identity.
  • Anonymous reporting is a situation where a someone witnesses issues within the school, but for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to become a target of the bullying, the student wants to do it anonymously. When a report is anonymous, the possible responses to the bullying will be enhanced monitoring of an area (i.e., a locker room during 5th period). Unless something is discovered through this enhanced monitoring no discipline will be done based on anonymous reporting.
  • Confidential reporting allows a student to keep their identity secret while discussing the specifics of an incident. Similarly to anonymous reporting, the school may respond by enhancing monitoring of problem areas. The school may also do safety planning with the student being harassed or bullied and seek to come up with more individualized responses, but no discipline will occur unless something is discovered through the enhanced monitoring.
  • Non-confidential reporting allows for the possibility of discipline to occur based on the reporting.  School districts still need to be descrete with the information, restricting the information to those who need to know.

State Model Policy Investigation Requirements (quoted from the Model Policy):

All reports of unresolved, severe, or persistent harassment, intimidation, or bullying will be investigated with resonable promptness. Any student may have a trusted adult with them throughout the report and investigation process.

a. Upon receipt of the Incident Reporting Form that alleges unresolved, severe, or persistent harassment, intimidation or bullying, the school or district designee will begin the investigation. If there is potential for clear and immediate physical harm to the complainant, the district will immediately contact law enforcement and inform the parent/guardian.

b. During the course of the investigation, the district will take reasonable measures to ensure  that no further incidents of harassment, intimidation, or bullying occur between the complainant and the alleged aggressor. If necessary, the district will implement a safety plan for the student(s) involved. The plan may include changing seating arrangements for the complainant and/or the alleged aggressor in the classroom, at lunch, or on the bus; identifying a staff member who will act as a safe person for the complainant; altering the alleged agressor’s schedule and access to the complainant, and other measures.

c. Within two (2) school days after receiving the Incident Reporting Form, the school designee will notify the families of the students involved that a complaint was received and direct the families to the district’s policy and procedure on harassment, intimidation, and bullying.
d. In rare cases, where after consultation with the student and appropriate staff (such as a psychologist, counselor, or social worker) the district has evidence that it would threaten the health and safety of the complainant or the alleged aggressor to involve his or her parent/guardian, the district may initially refrain from contacting the parent/guardian in its investigation of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. If professional school personnel suspect that a student is subject to abuse and neglect, they must follow district policy for reporting suspected cases to Child Protective Services.

e. The investigation shall include, at a minimum:

• An interview with the complainant.
• An interview with the alleged aggressor.
• A review of any previous complaints involving either the complainant or the alleged aggressor.
• Interviews with other students or staff members who may have knowledge of the alleged incident.

f. The principal or designee may determine that other steps must be taken before the investigation is complete.

g. The investigation will be completed as soon as practicable but generally no later than five (5) school days from the initial complaint or report. If more time is needed to complete an investigation, the district will provide the parent/guardian and/or the student with weekly updates.

h. No later than two (2) school days after the investigation has been completed and submitted to the compliance officer, the principal or designee shall respond in writing or in person to the parent/guardian of the complainant and the alleged aggressor stating:
• The results of the investigation.
• Whether the allegations were found to be factual.
• Whether there was a violation of policy.
• The process for the complainant to file an appeal if the complainant disagrees with results.

Appeal Process – must appeal to the district superintendent within 5 days of receiving the written decision. Can then appeal to the school board by filing a written notice to the secretary of the school board on or before the fifth school day following the superintendent’s decision. The appeal must be heard on or before the 10th school day after the notice of appeal is filed.