Trustees tackle bullying

Advocate: Parents, schools need to be more engaged

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COEUR d'ALENE - Longtime anti-bullying advocate Hannah Masters told Coeur d'Alene School District's Board of Trustees Monday that it's going to take a community effort to address bullying in the district's schools.

"We need engaged students. We need engaged parents, and we need engaged schools," Masters said.

Trustees and school officials agreed, and have stepped up efforts to prevent school children from threatening and harassing one another.

The board members directed the district's administration to convene a task force to look at the district's policies addressing bullying and consider other measures to get parents, children and teachers talking about the issue.

"I'd like to take a look at the problem at 30,000 feet first, to make sure that we've got our arms around it in total, and I really want the parents involved," said Trustee Brent Regan, who filled in as board chair for Tom Hamilton.

Superintendent Hazel Bauman suggested they consider using the documentary "Bully," as a tool. The award-winning film follows the lives of several kids and families dealing with harassment and threatening behavior. The task force will likely review the suggestion and make a recommendation to the board.

Masters, of Coeur d'Alene, stepped into the role of advocate several years ago, after becoming concerned about her own children's safety online. She told the trustees Monday that her kids have been subjected to bullying at two of the district's middle schools.

"There's a culture, and unfortunately, there's a culture that if you are being bullied and you speak out, nationally it's called 'You're a snitch,' locally, it's 'a rat,'" Masters said. "So, a lot of our kids suffer in silence."

She has been volunteering in the schools for several years and has held several workshops to educate parents about the problem of online predators and bullying, both online and in cyberspace.

"I think one of our big missing pieces is, we need to engage our kids in the conversation, and we need to let them know that they are the ones that are going to stop bullying," Masters said. "We need to let them know that they have the support, that when they stand up, they're going to be heard."

The discussion on anti-bullying efforts follows February's board meeting that attracted several parents who told trustees their children had been victims of bullies. The parents also said they did not feel the school district was addressing the problem.

Superintendent Hazel Bauman told the trustees on Monday that she had reviewed four district policies that touch on student harassment.

"While it's great to have four policies that address this very serious topic, the problem is they don't necessarily comport with each other," Bauman said.

There are inconsistencies that cause confusion, she said, especially in the area of cyberbullying. For example, Bauman said it's unclear how to address situations that arise on evenings or weekends, whether it's a school district issue or a law enforcement issue.

Christa Hazel spoke to the board and said she was concerned about policy 506, which addresses procedures in dealing with allegations of bullying and harassment.

Hazel said she reviewed the complaint procedure in the policy and feels it needs to be changed as soon as possible.

"Primarily, it needs to include parents, from the beginning," Hazel said.

The formal complaint form provided by the district indicates it should be filled out by a student or teacher, with no mention of parental involvement, she said. Parents aren't being notified when their children are suspected of bullying. The existing policy doesn't require any parental notification until after a second formal finding of bullying has been confirmed.

"Whether your child is a victim or a suspected bully, parents must be involved from the outset of the problem, not as an afterthought," Hazel said.

Parent Gary Finney told the board members that a student being bullied is unable to focus on learning.

He said his own child was bullied by a teacher after his wife questioned a reading assignment. Finney said the child didn't want him to do anything about it out of fear of retribution.

Trustee Terri Seymour, who agreed to serve as board liaison to the task force, thanked the parents who spoke.

"I think the students will embrace this, for the most part," said Trustee Jim Hightower.

Hightower, owner of several Domino's Pizza franchises in the area, said he has several high school students in his employment that he uses at times, as a sounding board. The young employees were happy, he said, to hear that the trustees were taking a long, hard look at the issue.

School officials also plan to use grant funds recently received from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe to bring a national expert on bullying into the schools next fall.

Associate Superintendent Matt Handelman said there will be small group discussions and an in-depth analysis of the district's climate and culture when it comes to bullying. Specific changes will be made based on those groups. The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations has agreed to help fund that effort, he said.

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