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Local schools mostly in line with anti-bullying law

With the passing of the new Safe and Supportive Schools Act (SSSA), Pine River-Backus (PR-B) and Pequot Lakes school officials say their schools are already mostly in compliance with the new bill.

The new law, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, strengthens an anti-bullying law that, according to an April 10 story in the Star Tribune, was “widely considered” one of the nation’s weakest at only 37 words.

SSSA requires districts to designate a staff member to receive reports of bullying, take immediate action to protect targets of bullying, investigate all bullying reports within three school days, and allow alleged bullies to present a defense. The law also designates 19 categories of what is to be considered bullying behavior.

“Quite honestly, it is very similar to our current policy and practices,” said PR-B Superintendent Cathy Bettino. “The new requirement to train staff every third year has been ongoing at PR-B, with formal training and ongoing sessions during faculty meeting discussions. In addition, our Youth and Family Service workers are often the first to be involved in bullying situations and have developed programs to reduce bullying behavior and intervene when needed.”

“It’s not coming to us at (PR-B) as a lot of extra things we have to put in place. We feel that we’ve got a lot of the pieces already,” said PR-B High School Principal Trent Langemo.

Pequot Lakes High School Principal Chip Rankin said it will mostly be a matter of formalizing the practices already in place in that district. Currently, students who report harassment or discrimination are asked to fill out an incident report.

Before filing, however, students are given a list of “things to consider when filing a report,” coaching them on certain risks sometimes involved, including retaliation, and strategies for dealing with those situations.

“When you weigh the risks of making a report ... don’t forget to weigh the risks of not reporting, which include escalation of harassment, continuation of an unsafe or hostile school environment and interference with your right to learn and be educated,” the document reads.

Once the report is filed, a specific procedure is followed, including determining whether the allegations are strong enough to warrant involving law enforcement or other proper authorities.

Rankin said the most difficult question to answer with the new law is how to determine what sort of behavior should qualify as bullying.

“Inappropriate comments versus bullying — to me, those are two different things,” Rankin said.

Langemo said PR-B takes bullying seriously, though the district tries not to call it bullying, since that term can have a wide range of meanings.

“We don’t often even use the term ‘bullying.’ If it’s repetitive, targeted behavior with power inflection, with a kid picking on and singling someone out, we would more likely use the term ‘harassment,’” Langemo said. “We have various consequences involved depending on severity. It would certainly involve parent contact, behavior intervention, all the way up to suspension.”

The law as written defines bullying as “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct that is objectively offensive.” This conduct is further defined by the presence of an “actual or perceived imbalance of power” and is “repeated or forms a pattern” or “materially and substantially interferes with student’s educational opportunities.”

These definitions carry over to cyberbullying as well, whether it takes place on campus or outside the classroom.

Officials at both districts said they use intervention and discipline in cases of bullying, though they prefer to prevent bullying altogether through enforcement of positive behavior.

Both PR-B and Pequot employ a framework known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), which helps school personnel adopt and organize evidence-based interventions that emphasize reinforcing positive behaviors.

According to an analysis of student misbehavior presented at a Nov. 18, 2013, meeting of the PR-B School Board, the PBIS system shows correlation with reduced bullying behaviors among elementary school students. The analysis found physical aggression had been greatly reduced, and most reported misbehaviors at the elementary level consisted of minor disruptions in class.

Rankin said teachers at Eagle View Elementary School are trained in bullying prevention through the Olweus Program, which, according to the program’s website, takes a comprehensive approach, including schoolwide, classroom, individual and community elements. Rankin said he believes intervention at an early age, when children don’t have as good of a grasp on what behavior is hurtful, has the most impact.

At PR-B, a program called Second Step, which focuses on empathy, emotion management and decision making, is “woven into the curriculum at grades seven and eight,” Langemo said.

“Students are learning a lot at this age, both in the classroom, but also how to get along with peers and how to (resolve conflict),” he said.

Rankin said bullying appears to be less of a problem at Pequot Lakes than in other districts he’s worked with, although he wondered aloud how much of that could be attributed to a lack of self-reporting and the homogenous nature of the community.

“Our exposure to the real world is really slim, and some people like it that way,” he said. “But there’s another world that exists outside of Pequot Lakes High School. We could expose our kids to some of that. ... I don’t know how we do that just yet.”

Bettino admitted there are still bullying behaviors at the school, though she did not classify these as a “problem.”

“I don’t see (PR-B) as having a bullying problem, but I would say there are probably people who have challenges. I think there are people who could be kinder to each other, and that’s what we all need to work on,” Bettino said.

Opponents to the SSSA argued that the bill would give state officials too much control over school districts with unique needs and could cost schools a significant amount. According to a news release from state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, the law is expected to cost school districts nearly $20 million but does not provide funding.

Rankin noted his own feeling was that the bill was written with metro districts with larger staffs and assistant principals in mind, and he was most concerned about the additional time needed to file paperwork and submit reports to the state.

“School districts our size are pretty lean, with one person really managing discipline,” he said. “It could take time away from teaching and learning.”

Bettino said compromises in the final version allowed school districts sufficient autonomy in dealing with bullying behaviors, and the SSSA in its current form does not pose any increased costs to PR-B.