Anti-Bullying Pledges: Form or Function?
Somewhere in that stack of back-to-school paperwork, amongst the emergency cards and lunch menus, many parents encounter an Anti-Bullying Pledge Form. What is the value of Anti-Bullying Pledge Forms?
The West Bloomfield School District’s Student Pledge reads, “Bullying (defined) is when one individual (or group) seeks to dominate, control, intimidate and/or terrorize the life of another individual.” Unfortunately, mean-spirited behaviors happen daily in every school across the country. Add to the typical hallway taunts, the very real impact of anonymous cyber-bullying, and you have, for some kids, a scary childhood.
Within the public school, there is only so much an administrator can do to discourage petty meanness. In his well-written ruling on a Title IX bullying case in Wisconsin, Judge J.P. Stadtmueller states, “There will always be spats between children. Certain children will always say and do nasty things to one another.”
His ruling reiterates the distinction that bullying must be a pattern of mistreatment involving, “a power imbalance.”
Although school officials cannot prevent garden-variety teasing, they are responsible once the impact of bullying actions, “deprive the student of access to educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school.”
When the victim no longer feels safe at the school, he/she may have recourse against the school if he/she can show that the mistreatment was based on gender, sex, race or disability discrimination AND that the school was aware of the abuse and did not take appropriate action.
This is where the Anti-Bullying Pledge Form comes into play. If nothing else, it protects the school district in the event of litigation. Administrators can show that they are on the lookout for bullying behaviors. It is a proactive approach.
As far as actually preventing bullying activities, the form gets families talking about the topic at home. Studies show that approximately 25 percent of students experience some form of bullying during their school careers. Often it goes unreported to teachers or parents. Either the student feels embarrassed or worried about retaliation for tattling. By addressing the topic annually, it gives parents an automatic chance to check-in with their children before annoying behavior becomes dangerous. It also informs all parents that the school has a bullying policy. Although the specific repercussions and punishments are not spelled out in the form, parents are notified that the school has the right to take action against bullies. Parents of accused bullies cannot claim as a defense that they weren’t warned.
As most people are aware, signing an anti-bullying pledge is not going to stop a true playground meanie. It is possible, however, that the pledge could be useful to empower the bystander. The last sentence of the West Bloomfield pledge form reads, “I acknowledge that whether I am being bullied or see someone else being bullied, if I don’t report or attempt to stop the bullying, I am just as guilty.”
The form puts all students on notice that they are responsible for each other. It could halt the piling on where bystanders become perpetrators when they witness the attention (negative such as it is) that bullies garner when they intimidate others.
In his advice to administrators, Brown wrote that school districts should, “1) provide an individualized response to each case within those policies; 2) train all staff to recognize bullying; 3) impress on staff the need for immediate intervention to stop bullying; and 4) hold annual continuing-education programs to discuss bullying issues and interventions.”
The pledge form is the visible part of what should be every school’s comprehensive anti-bullying campaign. Although it may contain platitudes like, “Bullying behavior is not welcome at our school,” the overriding meaning behind the pledge form is that the schools are trying, trying to protect themselves, to some degree, yes; but also actively trying to protect students against the age-old but ever-evolving problem of bullying.
Wisconsin Lawyer, “Bullying: Fighting Back,” William L. Brown, September 2014.
United States District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin, “Ruling in Case No. 12-CV-1052-JPS,” Judge J.P. Stadtmueller, August 16, 2013.
West Bloomfield School District, “Student Pledge: Bully-Free School Zone,” September 2014.