The South Orange – Maplewood School District has work to do to educate teachers, administrators, coaches and parents about the state’s anti-bullying law, and to improve its communication efforts as it investigates reported bullying incidents.
Those were two key points made by In-House Counsel Phil Stern in his follow-up to the district’s Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) law self-assessment at the Board of Education meeting on October 19.
The report can be found attached to this article as a PDF.
The report was a follow up to a full presentation of the self-assessment report Stern gave in September.
Randy Nathan, parent of a former CHS baseball player, praised new Superintendent Dr. John Ramos for his responsiveness to bullying allegations, but criticized the district for its “audacity” in touting improvements in the self-assessment.
Noting that he had known of at least ten confirmed HIB violations in the district, Nathan expressed incredulity that the self-assessment scores could have improved since last year.
“I find it very hard to believe that a school that has been violating HIB would have the audacity to promote itself as improving their score by over 30%,” said Nathan. “Don’t let these numbers deceive you,” he told the board.
The issue came up at the recent Board of Education election forum, when candidates expressed concern over bullying incidents in the district.
Before he began his report, Stern stressed that confidentiality law restricts the district from speaking about specific HIB incidents.
Some key points from the presentation:
- The HIB task force recommends highlighting the concept of a “power differential” in educating staff about the definition of bullying
- More serious cases of bullying generally occur in the middle schools and at CHS. “We must redouble our efforts to support the middle schools and high school in all areas of HIB work,” said Stern.
- The district receives “too many complaints from community members regarding lapses in communication during various stages of the HIB investigation process,” said Stern. “Timely communication is key to successful outcomes of HIB investigations. “
- The community needs to have a greater understanding of the HIB law, and the law’s “letter and spirit” must be incorporated into all daily programs in SOMSD.
- “The concept of anti-bullying efforts in athletics is a “new and exciting area,” said Stern. “We have the opportunity to put our district on the map on that.”
“We’ve seen a lot of issues that I recognized immediately as bullying,” said BOE 2nd Vice President Johanna Wright. “We have to do something to curtail it.” Wright also noted that sometimes a child reporting bullying “becomes the bullied person all over again.”
Stern agreed with Wright, and said that training teachers and staff to recognize bullying was one of the district’s top priorities.
Board member Maureen Jones and 1st Vice President Madhu Pai asked details about how the district is training staff. Stern said training was regular and ongoing, but “we need more of it.” In addition, each school has an antibullying specialist and school safety team. Board member Elizabeth Baker asked for more transparency in that regard: “Most parents don’t know who the HIB coordinator is in their school. It should be easy to find.”
Pai asked how the district responds when incidents are reported. “I feel we’re a bit all over the place with this.”
Stern said that was actually the most important part of the law and was something the district had ongoing conversations about. “How do we support individuals who endure [bullying and] counsel and support those who have committed acts?”