Punishing the bullies

Cd'A school board members push for harsher penalties for students who harass, intimidate or bully

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School board members in Coeur d’Alene want Idaho lawmakers to consider adding some fresh teeth to the state’s anti-bullying law.

The trustees on the school district’s five-member board are planning to ask their counterparts on school boards throughout the state to join them in seeking increased criminal liability for students who harass, intimidate or bully other students.

Idaho’s criminal statute prohibiting such behavior currently provides a purely punitive penalty: an offender “may” be found guilty of an infraction.

“That is the only remedy, so you pay a fine and you move on,” said Coeur d’Alene school board chair Christa Hazel.

That penalty, similar to a ticket for a driving offense, comes with a $72 fine.

Coeur d’Alene school trustees have drafted and submitted a resolution to be considered by members of the Idaho School Board Association in November, when they meet in Boise for their annual convention. The ISBA — comprising more than 500 elected school trustees from throughout the state — offers members information, training, legislative advocacy and other services. The resolution, one of many that will be voted on by ISBA members at the convention, could become part of the ISBA’s platform as it lobbies on behalf of school boards during the 2015 legislative session.

The resolution proposes that the ISBA work with the Idaho Legislature “to develop a tiered criminal sanction approach that provides more discretion for our judicial system in order to more effectively address criminal student bullying/harassment behavior in the school setting.”

“The whole goal is not to put more kids in jail, to criminalize them or penalize them,” Hazel said. “The idea, in my mind, is that if we have a particularly bad case, you’d like to think the parents would be involved and a withheld judgment or deferred prosecution might be the carrot that gets somebody to make some changes.”

Support from police

Coeur d’Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood, who supervises her department’s school resource officers, said the issue comes up regularly during quarterly meetings. The SROs — uniformed police officers stationed in public schools — say the bullying statute isn’t sufficient, Wood said.

“We’re not there to trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em, by any means,” said Det. Steve Harris, a longtime SRO now stationed at Canfield Middle School in Coeur d’Alene.

Harris said the officers’ goal in the schools is to guide and protect students through education, awareness and relationship-building.

“And 99 percent of the time that works, but once in a while you have that one kid that won’t listen,” he said. “If I actually write that infraction, it’s just pay a ticket and go. There’s no diversion, no counseling.”

He recently dealt with a girl who just kept moving on to bully different children. With a tougher law, Harris said they might have been able to take steps that could have had a life-changing effect on that child.

“If you can change a kid by getting him help before he turns 18, you can really do some good,” Harris said.

But as the law stands, the SROs’ hands are tied.

“It is so frustrating to the officers,” Wood said. “This would make a big difference.”

If the criminal penalty for student bullying was enhanced, officers would apply it only in the “most egregious” cases, Wood said.

“We’re not just talking about a mean kid,” Harris said.

He pointed to an instance where increased criminal consequences would be appropriate: the girl who takes a photo of her middle school classmate as she’s getting changed in the locker room, and then sends it by cellphone to everyone in the school before the class is over.

“This girl is totally humiliated so quickly,” Harris said.

And it happens.

The 2013 Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released by the Idaho State Department of Education, indicates that 24 percent of high school freshmen and 33 percent of seniors report having sent or received nude images of themselves or someone else by email or text at least once in the past year.

Last year, 24 percent of high school children reported having been bullied on school grounds at least once during the last 12 months. The youngest children in Idaho’s high schools report being targeted by bullies most often: 39 percent of ninth-grade girls and 32 percent of boys in that grade.

Need to do more

Trustee Tom Hamilton, a board member since 2011, said that through the district’s efforts to combat bullying, he became aware that despite numerous reports of the behavior, very few cases were being referred to law enforcement.

Hamilton said the board rewrote school policy to require the district to forward cases of bullying to law enforcement, and to require that parents are called anytime their child is involved in a bullying incident.

“While preventive measures are an important part of the formula, punitive ones must be part of the equation too,” Hamilton said.

An anti-bullying task force was convened by the school district in March 2013 in response to parents’ complaints that their children were being targeted by bullies in district schools. The renewed efforts included a visit and training from Stephen Wessler, an internationally recognized hate crimes and discrimination expert.

Hamilton said he was profoundly affected by Wessler’s message.

“He said that the problem with bullying is that you can’t learn because you spend half the class in pain because of what happened to you on the way there, and the other half of class in fear of what’s going to happen after,” Hamilton said. “That’s what goes on in our schools. “It’s way more kids that are subjected to this than anyone wants to talk about.”

Hamilton said there are many things the Coeur d’Alene School District does well.

“But when it comes to bullying, we need to be honest, there is more we could and should be doing,” he said. “I think the districts need to be accountable, parents need to be accountable and the students need to be accountable.”

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