(Published in the Portsmouth Herald, May 2011)
In the wake of the sentences delivered to Massachusetts teenagers associated with the Phoebe Prince suicide investigation, attention has returned to bullying in schools and cyberbullying out of schools. In New Hampshire, we have an aggressive law that has developed over the last decade. New Hampshire passed the “Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act” in 2000. It was amended in 2004 and again in 2010. Bullying Police USA, a watchdog organization, has given the law an A++ in response to last year’s amendment.
One of the big reasons why Bullying Police USA gave New Hampshire such high marks for its anti-bullying law was the fact that it addresses cyberbullying – bullying or harassment that occurs online via Facebook, instant messages, email, webpages, and other internet-based communications. The statute grants schools the authority and responsibility to respond to bullying that occurs out of school, like cyberbullying and text messaging, when it “interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.”
Under the current law, public school boards had until January 1st of this year to adopt policies that prohibit bullying. Following policy adoption, districts must train their teachers and establish reporting procedures for identified incidents of bullying. New Hampshire’s law defines bullying as a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil which either (1) physically harms a pupil or damages the pupil’s property, (2) causes emotional distress to a pupil, (3) interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, (4) creates a hostile educational environment, or (5) substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.
What this means is that schools are responsible for providing a safe, secure and respectful learning environment for all students, not just in school buildings, but also online, when kids are susceptible to cyberbullying. This was a new requirement added to the law by the 2010 amendment. Prior to this specific obligation, school officials were uncertain as to the extent of their responsibility to respond to bullying off school grounds. It effectively requires schools to police student-to-student harassment and abuse committed anywhere if it negatively impacts their school performance.
The statute also states that when a school receives a report of bullying – whether in school or out of school – it is required to initiate an investigation within 5 schools days of the principal receiving the report. Further, the principal must take action to remediate the bullying and offer assistance to the students where appropriate. The goal is to stop the bullying, but also to reduce the risk of future incidents. Because of the clear obligations established in New Hampshire’s law, teachers and school administrators must take reports of bullying seriously, and parents should take advantage of that. If you believe your child has been bullied, report it to his or her teacher and principal.
But combating bullying requires more than just policies, reporting, and investigations. The starting point for positive school behavior between and among students begins with encouraging and rewarding good behaviors. Parents can assist schools to create programs that promote such behavior. Examples include good citizen of the month, student of the week, above and beyond awards, and other recognition of good behavior that can be incorporated into the school’s culture. Administrators, faculty, school employees, and parents must model respectful and appropriate behavior. Schools must monitor behaviors and not tolerate unacceptable behavior. School administrators should cultivate and promote open communication, an open door to raise concerns, and diversity and inclusion of all members of the school community – students, employees, and parents. A written policy, training and appropriate responses when bullying does occur are the requirements under New Hampshire’s law, but providing a healthy, safe and respectful school atmosphere is a school’s and parent’s best tool to combat bullying in our schools.
John Weaver is a member of the Real Estate Department and the Education Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, Professional Association. He can be reached at 603-628-1442 or [email protected]. The McLane Law Firm is the largest full-service law firm in the state of New Hampshire, with offices in Concord, Manchester and Portsmouth.