November 2009 Up Front

NEWS ANALYSIS
Bullying continues despite efforts, laws

The video is horrifying to watch. Two students on a school bus attack a classmate while others watch. The bus driver yells at the students to sit down but does not stop, instead radioing ahead to report the fight, which started because the victim sat down in a particular seat.

Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, the surveillance video quickly spread around the country, focusing attention again on bullying at the same time that an Associated Press article showed that laws passed to prevent such incidents are largely ineffective.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 44 states have anti-bullying and harassment laws on the books. School districts in those states are required to approve policies that support the laws, but the AP reported that most states do not have a follow-up plan to ensure the policies are enforced.

The mid-September school bus incident, which occurred in Illinois’ Belleville Township High School District 201, only served to prove the point. District officials admitted that more should be done, and moved quickly to calm skittish parents and students, especially after police initially said the incidents were racially motivated. The police then backed away from that remark and said instead that bullying was the motivator.

“While no one can control the actions of each individual student, this district can certainly control how it responds to these unpleasant events,” Superintendent Greg A. Moats said in a letter sent home to parents. “This incident must serve as a catalyst for District 201 to keep this issue at the forefront and continue to educate the student body. District officials are working to develop programs that will strengthen this endeavor.”

Speakers at an ASBJ-sponsored webinar, held just four days before the Belleville incident, said a district’s bullying prevention policy should have firm action plans that accompany it.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of the best selling book Queen Bees and Wannabees and a renowned speaker on bullying and relational aggression, said today’s students “are really turning off the word ‘bullying.’”

“Kids know what is going on,” Wiseman said during the webinar, which is archived and available at www.asbj.com. “What they want are very concrete strategies that not only are they going to use, but that the [staff] are going to use. ... If we talk about respect and put the word up on the school walls, we need to be very concrete in what that looks like.”

According to 2007 data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), bullying incidents are on the rise. In 2007, nearly one-third of students ages 12 to 18 said they were bullied during the school year, a 20 percent increase over the past decade. However, it’s not known whether the numbers reflect actual incidents or more awareness of the problem, NCES officials said.

Chuck Saufler, a school counselor and former head of the Maine Bullying Project, said the term “bullying” has changed dramatically since the first rash of laws were passed in the wake of school shootings in the early to mid- 1990s.

“We’re using the word ‘bullying’ to mean all kinds of peer aggression,” Saufler said during the webinar, noting that the lack of clarity can sometimes be confusing for teachers and administrators. “Standing in a hallway and watching something go down, it’s really hard for me in the moment to differentiate social status, power imbalance, intent, and impact, even though those things are really important issues.”

Brenda High, a Washington state-based advocate who started the Bully Police USA website after her 13-year-old son committed suicide in 1998, said states need to get tougher on bullying in schools.

“The states themselves can’t micromanage a school district -- but they can say to a school district, ‘Look, you have to have consequences,’” High told the AP. “It needs to be written into the law that bullying has the same consequences as assault. The records and such need to be kept so that if the child is a chronic bully, they -- after so many instances -- will end up in an alternative school.”

Bullying never will go away completely, but Saufler said district staff must be assertive in trying to curtail it, both when an incident occurs and when working with the community to improve school climate. His credo, he said, is that “if it looks mean and sounds mean, intervene and we’ll sort it out later.”

In terms of working with the community, Saufler said administrators and board members must show they are devoted to improving school climate. That, he believes, is critical.

“When public schools open the doors in the morning, guess who walks in? The children of the public, with all the attitudes and bias of the community,” he said. “Working with the community and not only parents is a really important part of this work. It is critical.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


ON THE HILL
Federal levers for raising student achievement
By Michael A. Resnick

The Obama administration has pushed major funding increases through Congress that have substantially worked their way into local school districts.

Through the economic stimulus program, most states directed the bulk of the $40 billion share of education State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (SFSF) to the K-12 level. On top of regular appropriations for specific programs, extra funding of $10 billion in local Title I grants, $12 billion for special education, and $3 billion for School Improvement Grants were also provided, as well as a new $5 billion discretionary grant program.

However, these funds come with expectations. In addition to helping with tight budgets, the federal level wants what it sees as a one-time opportunity to build a results-driven infrastructure that generally will raise student achievement while closing the achievement gap in the lowest-performing schools.

All states receiving SFSF must have four key plan elements:

• Bring standards and assessments to college and career readiness levels.

• Provide more effective teachers who are equitably assigned to low-performing schools.

• Provide data systems to track student and teacher progress.

• Address low-performing schools.

With respect to Title I schools, infusing an additional $10 billion as well as another $3 billion in School Improvement Grants (SIGs) for the lowest performing will go a long way if the money is strategically spent.

The U.S. Department of Education has not -- as yet -- sought to change the Title I program generally, but it has a proposal to leverage significant change in Title I schools that receive SIGs.

In essence, boards will need to “remake” these schools by replacing the principal and most of the staff, operating them as charters or through school management organizations, closing them down, or replacing the principal with some specific requirements in such areas as professional development, staff rewards for student outcomes, and measuring student growth.

NSBA generally has been supportive of the SIG proposal, but has expressed objections to several rigid requirements that don’t adequately take current local conditions into account.

If implemented, these requirements could stand in the way of school boards selecting the best option for students or prevent them from being able to participate at all.

With respect to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s $5 billion in discretionary funding, $4.35 billion in Race to the Top (RTTT) grants will be awarded to select states that demonstrate the commitment and capacity to engage in very specific high-leverage activities that fulfill the four SFSF plan requirements.

NSBA recognizes the value of the Race to the Top proposal, but has voiced strong objection to the overall administrative and financial burden it would place on all districts, including those that will not receive special funding.

This program would use the same “remake” options as the SIG program, but it would do so in a manner that creates a priority for takeovers, charters, and school management organizations over strengthening the school under the current governance structure.

Among our other objections, RTTT wants recipient states to remove caps on how many charter schools can be authorized -- regardless of educational justification or whether the local board is the authorizing agency.

Hopefully, in its desire for this unique opportunity to support the nation’s schools in raising academic achievement, U.S. Department of Education’s final rules for both the SIG and RTTT programs will not counterproductively overload the system with too many requirements that are not necessary or effective, or that are inconsistent with local governance.

The action that the administration takes in its final rules on the SIG and RTTT programs may provide a clue for the level of flexibility to expect in its broader proposal in the coming months to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Stay tuned ... 

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director of advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association.


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Cyberthieves hit school districts
After stealing millions from businesses, a gang of cybercriminals recently has targeted school districts and universities. The group operates by hacking computer systems and siphoning small amounts of money through bogus transfers, according to the Washington Post’s Security Fix blog. The Sanford, Colo., school district was targeted in August, when officials discovered that $117,000 was stolen through transfers from the district’s payroll account. Another district, Sand Springs, Okla., saw $150,000 siphoned from an online account by hackers. Although these incidents are being investigated by federal authorities, school districts must watch their accounts diligently, experts say. While consumers generally have a 60-day period in which to dispute unauthorized activities, companies that bank online only have roughly two business days to spot and dispute unauthorized activity if they hope to recover unauthorized transfers from their accounts, according to the Post.

High school coach acquitted
A jury in Louisville, Ky., reached a “not guilty” verdict in the nation’s first criminal trial of a high school football coach charged with contributing to a player’s death. The coach, Jason Stinson, was accused of working his players too hard and denying them water on a 94-degree day last summer. A 15-year-old sophomore, Max Gilpin, collapsed and later died at a local hospital. Gilpin’s parents believe the case will raise awareness of the need for training for coaches and staff and the dangers players can face during strenuous practices on a hot day.

Va. requires students to write goals
The Virginia Board of Education will require all seventh-graders to write out their academic and career goals, including the classes they plan to take in high school and how their studies will help them succeed after graduation. Beginning with next year’s seventh-grade class, students will complete the initial process by eighth grade, and they will review and revise those goals throughout their high school years. The students, their parents or guardians, and school officials will sign off on the plans. The process is part of a broader statewide plan to ease the transition between secondary schools, higher education, and the work force.

Maine looking for public options for severely disabled students
Spurred by a state budget crisis, officials in Maine are looking at ways to lower the costs of educating students with severe disabilities, including autism, mental illnesses, and rare learning disabilities. Many of these students now receive education and other services in private settings. Tuition can run upwards of $100,000 a year. The Maranacook-area school district, for instance, opened a regional center for autistic students in a vacant wing of an elementary school. The district is using federal stimulus money to provide students a better quality education, closer to home, at a lower cost than private placements, officials told the Kennebec Journal.

Parents sue to revoke dress code
A group of parents is asking the federal government to force the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte, S.D., school district to revoke its dress code for students, according to The Associated Press. The lawsuit argues that the dress code violates federal regulations requiring that the school district must consult with tribes and parents of American Indian children in developing programs and policies. School officials said that the dress code is intended to avoid gang violence. The parents, most of whom live in poverty on the reservation, say they cannot afford to buy the required clothing.

Finding ‘free’ money online
Several schools in Dallas are using the DonorsChoose website to successfully solicit money for class projects. Through the program, teachers write grant proposals for items they need. Potential donors can search www.donors choice.org to find projects they would like to fund. When a project receives enough contributions, DonorsChoose staff buy the item from a participating vendor and ship it to the school. The donor receives a thank you note from the teacher and a photo of their contribution in use, and DonorsChoose takes an 18 percent administrative fee.

Ariz. districts hire fundraisers
Although Arizona’s Higley Unified School District is in a financial bind, the school board recently added a new position: director of capital campaign and fundraising. The district realized it needed a person to oversee its fundraising activities and write grant applications. “In this time of financial cuts, we need to think outside of the traditional education budget,” Superintendent Denise Birdwell told the East Valley Tribune. “I think we’re in a climate where many districts are having to go above and beyond to secure funding that supports the type of educational programs that the communities desire or need,” Tracey Benson, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, told the Tribune.

District swaps school building for free college tuition
The Hancock, Mich., school district recently arranged a land-swap with a university in exchange for free tuition for its graduating seniors. Finlandia University, a 550-student private college, wanted to expand its health sciences programs and also needed a place for its new Division III football team and other sports teams to play, according to The Associated Press. Hancock’s middle school, meanwhile, was about to move. Administrators from the two schools hatched a deal that would allow Finlandia to take the 85-year-old school building and share athletic fields with the high school in exchange for free tuition -- about $18,000 -- for any qualifying Hancock graduate for the next 12 years. This fall, 25 of the district’s 55 graduates enrolled.

Lower dropout rate boosts homeownership, group says
If 12 of the nation’s largest cities cut their dropout rates in half, they would see an additional $1.5 billion in wages each year, ultimately resulting in 61,800 new homeowners, according to a new analysis. The Alliance for Excellent Education shows detailed reports for each of the cities surveyed at www.all4ed.org/ EconMSA. “As these findings show, the best economic stimulus is a high school diploma,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and a former governor of West Virginia.

Board revises rules for “backpack mail”
The Madison, Wis., school board has revised its rules for “backpack mail” -- the package of materials periodically sent home with students. The folders still will contain items such as school announcements, teacher notes, field-trip permission slips, and ads for nonprofit groups. But items now banned are fliers touting for-profit offerings, such as private tutoring, after-school care, music lessons, and karate classes. The policy change came as the result of concerns that a growing amount of fliers and pamphlets was taking too much staff time, school board President Arlene Silveira told the Wisconsin State Journal.

L.A. students fight obesity through social networking
A group of 40 students from South Los Angeles recently launched a new project, “We’re Fed Up,” to fight obesity and educate their peers on healthy food choices. The group’s website features members’ blogs, where they discuss issues like food choices, fitness, and the perils of obesity. They are using social networking tools to help mobilize others to work for more healthy and affordable food options and better places to exercise in their low-income neighborhoods. One current project is lobbying government officials to create partnerships between schools and local nonprofit groups that would allow community members to use school campuses.

Parents give higher marks to elementary schools on safety
Parents give their children’s elementary and middle schools higher marks for safety and bullying prevention than they do high schools, a survey found. On the topic of overall safety, 59 percent of parents gave their child’s elementary or middle school an A, but only one-third of those gave an A when asked about their child’s high school, according to HealthDay News. About 26 percent of parents gave their child’s high school an A for bullying prevention efforts, compared to about 38 percent who gave that grade to an elementary or middle school. “What this poll shows is that parents are still very concerned about bullying in their schools,” says Matthew Davis, director of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, in a statement.