By Emily Grobe
For Reporting Texas
In August, school districts in Texas will have to take a more formal approach to bullying incidents, a change in law that has garnered praise from anti-harassment organizations but criticism from some school officials and small-government groups.
Since bullying has been blamed for teenage suicides around the country, including in Texas, every state except Montana has an anti-bullying law on the books, the majority of which are administered through school districts. Of those, more than half were passed in the past five years. In its last legislative session, Texas passed House Bill 1942 and its sister legislation Senate Bill 471.
In Texas, like in other states, “bullying” means engaging in written or verbal expression or physical conduct that will physically harm another student or student’s property, or is persistent enough to create an intimidating or threatening educational environment for a student.
The Texas legislation, which was authored by five different legislators, including Rep. Mark Strama, who represents parts of Travis County, lays out specific steps to addressing bullying. In addition to defining bullying and cyberbullying, it requires training for school district staff and allows for the transfer of students involved with bullying, a tactic that has never been allowed by law. In addition, the bills expand the requirements on school districts to address bullying and harassment, through parental notification, programs for students and staff, counseling for bullies and victims and protection for those who report bullying. Charter schools also are required to adopt a policy on sexual abuse starting this year.
Equality Texas, a group that lobbies for the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, calls the bill “the single best opportunity … to address the problem of bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment in Texas schools.” After passage of the bills, the website BullyPolice.org, a watchdog organization that advocates for bullied children and state anti-bullying laws, gave Texas the organization’s highest grade for its efforts.
Yet some school officials say the legislation provides little relief and is only adding costs and workload to administrators. For instance, Pflugerville Independent School District officials say the law addresses an issue they always have taken seriously, while its uncertainty and the increased workload will make their efforts to address bullying more difficult.
“Until we arrive at some accepted definitions of bullying and have time to educate parents, the law will get used inappropriately,” said Freddie McFarland, Pflugerville’s director of student affairs. “The biggest problem is anticipating how the legal system is going to respond. We don’t have good guidance in that area now.”
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Carla Martini, a prevention specialist with Connections Individual and Family Services in South Texas who serves districts in Wilson, Atascosa and Karnes counties, said that schools are focusing on bullying right now, and she is interested to see how the law will help the issue.
“Bullying has a definite effect on a student’s self-esteem, on their education, on a lot of things,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea that districts may have new avenues to deal with the issue, but I’d like to see how the new law does that first.”
Part of the new law allows district officials to move or transfer a student considered a bully, rather than move the victim, as has been done in the past. And while Martini was hesitant to say that was the best way to deal with a bullying situation, she applauded the law’s effort to give districts more tools and resources to address the problem.
“Most victims are already going through so much. It may help them to be able to stay in their classroom or school and not have their world turned upside down anymore,” she said.
McFarland expressed a similar sentiment but added that the change in law could create another issue and more work for administrators to deal with.
“It never made sense to move the victim, but it will make our work a little harder because now you can just get mad at someone and try to get them moved to another school by claiming they have bullied you,” he said. “It increases the importance of a step-by-step process and good documentation.”
That documentation will require more paperwork from administrators and more monitoring and training for classroom teachers – which McFarland thinks could take time away from their teaching duties.
“With large, diverse campuses we have to work to improve the quality of our interpersonal relations and especially student interactions,” McFarland said. “The policies we have are good. The campus administrators have been very proactive, and I think the procedures we are using have helped control the incidents.”
The Pflugerville district defines bullying much the way the new law does and includes examples ranging from name calling and rumor spreading to assault, demands for money and destruction of property. The policy also outlines reporting and investigating procedures and allows for “appropriate disciplinary or corrective action” by the district.
The anti-bullying legislation has also been criticized for involving the state in what should be a local issue.
The Texas Eagle Forum, the conservative organization that lobbies for self-government and less government involvement, said the issue does not necessitate legal involvement. On its website, the group encouraged Texans to ask their legislators to oppose the bill because “bullying is best handled at the local level by parents and local school authorities.”
In fact, the Pflugerville district has already been recognized for its anti-bullying efforts. Its high school hosts a student-run event called Ally Night, designed to raise awareness and promote respect for individual differences, that brings together students and the community to discourage bullying and celebrate inclusion. This year’s event, held in October, was one step in the district’s earning a No Place for Hate designation, an Anti-Defamation League program that aims to create an inclusive school environment.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, hundreds of school campuses throughout Texas, including many in the Houston, Austin and El Paso areas, have embraced the initiative.
“Ally Night is important because we need to make sure everyone in the school and in the Pflugerville community is aware there is an open, supportive environment,” said Diem-Nhi Tran, a Pflugerville High School senior and the student government president. “No one should feel alone here.”