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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Palo Alto getting a crash course on bullying -- yet some prevention efforts go back years

Uploaded: Mar 30, 2013

Bullying and how to prevent it and deal with both victims and bullies has become a hot topic in Palo Alto schools, spurred by a harsh finding by the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, California region (OCR).

Administrators at the Palo Alto Unified School District's 17 schools last week underwent something of a crash course on bullying, appropriate responses and how best to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Teachers and staff will be next as the district implements a comprehensive set of steps to which Superintendent Kevin Skelly agreed in December. Parent and community involvement will continue where it already exists and be expanded in a variety of ways, some still on the drawing boards in terms of designing outreach efforts.

Elevating bullying to the level of a civil-rights violation of the person being bullied is rare, but OCR representatives -- referring media queries to a public-relations person -- cannot say how rare.

And most cases where it has been deemed a civil rights issue have occurred in low-income districts. So that makes the high-end, high-performance Palo Alto district a rarity of rarities.

And civil rights only enters the picture when the victim is a member of a protected group, based in the Palo Alto case on a disability. Other categories can include sexual preference, race, ethnic background or physical handicaps.

The district and the PTA Council have teamed up to launch anti-bullying informational programs at all the district's elementary schools, enlisting TheatreWorks in putting on special performances.

And Sigrid Pinsky, PTA Council president, is conducting a survey of anti-bullying efforts at all district's schools.

"Every school has some type of program," Pinsky has found. Her two sons attend Fairmeadow Elementary School, which uses the Steps to Respect program, as do several other schools. Some school-based programs, such as the highly regarded program at Ohlone School, have been developed over several decades, and even involve daily exchanges in "reflection circles" as to what is happening at and around the school.

One program, called "Digital Tattoo," focuses on the dangers of Internet bullying and how young persons must learn that posting something online in a social network or otherwise becomes virtually permanent, much like getting a tattoo -- but far more than skin deep. The program is a spinoff of two women from the Palo Alto-based Parents' Place.

Pinsky disagrees that the "civil rights" case indicates a "systemic failure" in the district, however -- citing the numerous efforts underway.

The focus on bullying has increased sharply in the past half-dozen years, in part due to the attention paid to online "cyberbullying" and in large part due to some high-profile suicides tragedies to which bullying is believed to have contributed.

Given that perhaps this case was not a systemic failure but a slip-through-the-cracks lapse of procedure and district-wide policy support, what can be done? Everyone agrees that bullying can take many forms, from physical to ridicule to exclusionary cruelty. And everyone seems to agree that dealing with the bullies is an important aspect.

The 10-page OCR report, based on extensive interviews of officials, parents and students, outlines in detail the efforts made by school officials to respond to the series of bullying incidents of the child involved. But it still is a blistering read.

It also includes a telling paragraph that pretty much defines the situation on which the OCR based its conclusions:

"OCR evaluates the appropriateness of the responsive action by assessing whether it was prompt, thorough, and effective. What constitutes a reasonable response to harassment will differ depending upon the circumstances. However, in all cases the district must promptly conduct an impartial inquires designed to reliably determine what occurred. The response much be tailored to stop the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, and remedy the effects of the harassment on the student who was harassed. The district must also take steps to prevent the harassment from recurring, including disciplining the harasser where appropriate."

So promptness, effectiveness, fact-finding, preventing recurrences, remedying effects on the victim and discipline all may come into play -- although discipline alone is being challenged as the best way to change the behavior of an aggressor. Direct involvement in programs that foster empathy and understanding of others seems to be highly effective, according to some research studies.

"He has turned into a really nice guy," Pinsky said one of her sons said of another student who had a reputation as a bully.

Pinsky said she has invited Emily Bazelon, a journalist and author of the recent book, "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy," to speak in Palo Alto. Schedule conflicts put off the presentation until the fall, however.

The book is being cited as a moving, clear and well-researched exploration of bullying from viewpoint of bully and bullied. A Google search also turns up scores of resources for knowledge and action.

Meanwhile, she is exploring local persons who have special knowledge, from front-line educators to professionals at area universities, to be part of a panel on the subject.

And the Palo Alto Board of Education in early May is scheduled to hear a full update on district actions.

Yet the challenge remains of how best to get the attention of those students (and especially their parents) who engage in bullying, in one form or another. A friend asked me whether students in grade school still have a place on their report cards for "social skills."

Yes, there is a place, and it includes subheads of respect and assuming personal responsibility.

What if repeated bullying involvement were included in that assessment, with the possibility at least of it being reflected in some future academic report or transcript? Not a likely scenario -- but that would certainly grab the attention of grade-conscious Palo Alto students and parents AND result in some quick behavior change. And I'm not even sure I like that "labeling" approach.

But getting one's attention and changing attitude and behavior is the bulls-eye, isn't it?

*Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).*