‘We can do better’: Education Committee targets harassment, bullying in K-12 schools

State lawmakers are responding to numerous reports from Wyoming residents who say K-12 school should do more to address harassment and bullying.

The issue arose during an Education Committee meeting earlier this month, when Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, shared several news articles about harassment allegations resulting in “absolute inaction” by K-12 school officials throughout the state.

“(There’s) mounting frustration among students and parents,” Ellis said. “The perception (is) that nothing is being done to protect the victim. … Instead, the focus is on protecting the perpetrator.”

Advertisement

Privacy

Part of the problem, Wyoming Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said, is that school districts are required to protect the privacy of students and employees who are accused of harassment.

The privacy requirements keep “unfounded allegations from getting out into the general public and doing considerable damage,” Scott said – but they also make it difficult to “communicate with the public when there is a real concern (that is) adversely affecting their kids.”

Lander superintendent Dave Barker, who addressed the committee during the meeting, agreed that privacy restrictions create a “challenge” for K-12 administrators, who have to “balance” the rights of the accused with the rights of their alleged victims.

Usually, Barker said, all he can report to affected families is: “We’ve done something, (but) I can’t tell you what.”

Advertisement

“It’s a difficult conversation to have with someone who is victimized – or feels victimized, in some cases,” Barker said. “We can’t tell you what happened.”

Mental health

The disciplinary actions that can be taken to address disruptive student behavior in K-12 schools range from “cooling-off” periods, to lunch detention, in-school suspension and expulsion, Barker said.

Lander schools have also taken steps to recruit more student counselors, he noted, and this fall the district brought in a “trauma-informed speaker” to give staff additional information about “kids who are coming in with trauma from their home or (elsewhere), and not pushing that button.”

Advertisement

“(The students) are going to push our buttons,” Barker said. “We’ve got to try to come up with some strategies not to push theirs. I think that helps.”

Ellis agreed that counseling and other interventions are appropriate for students who are “acting out” in school because they come from “troubled homes” where “maybe things aren’t great” – but she questioned whether the same strategy would apply in cases where perpetrators “come from great homes, they’re doing great, and they’re making really bad choices.”

“The struggle is, now we’re all just focused on the mental health of the person that’s made really bad decisions – at the cost of victimizing the victim again (with) a system that just says, ‘Well that poor student has mental health issues, we can’t punish them,’” Ellis said. “No amount of mental health services is going to help the kids that are emboldened by their bad behavior.”

Advertisement

Native students

Barker clarified that Lander schools do pursue disciplinary actions against students who are guilty of harassment – even in cases that involve a “mental health component.”

“If there was enough evidence to say this person needs to be suspended, they would be,” he said, prompting Ellis to ask more about the suspension process in Lander, specifically with regards to Native American students.

She referred to a report that she read several years ago detailing the “high rates of suspensions for Native students” in Lander.

“The article indicated that the discipline was disproportionate,” Ellis said, asking Barker to “break that down for us – because I think this is a topic of concern for the Wind River Reservation.”

Barker confirmed that his schools have seen a “higher rate” of suspensions among Native students in Lander, especially in recent years.

“It has increased … in some areas more than slightly,” he said. “We’re going to look at why that is. We haven’t had the chance to do that yet, but it is getting higher.”

Problem adults

Later in the meeting, the Education Committee voted to advance a bill draft Ellis had prepared clarifying that district employees, administrators and volunteers are also subject to Wyoming laws prohibiting bullying, harassment and intimidation in K-12 schools.

“(We need to) make it clear that this bullying can occur from school district employees to students – and vice versa,” Ellis said, adding, “I’ve already been getting phone calls (about it) this year.”

One of those calls was from a student who “felt that her dance coach fat-shamed her,” for example, Ellis said.

Wyoming Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, said he has heard of “similar occurrences” in Fremont County, and while he didn’t go into detail, he said “there are enough examples that I’ve heard just from the committee members that (show) that we can do better.”

“We have our kids spending eight hours a day at school, and then perhaps even longer, two or three hours after that, in sports,” he said. “They need safe places.”

Wyoming Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, called it a “systemic problem” that he also hears about from constituents.

“We really need to address this,” Brown said. “We expect these teachers, coaches and administrators to have compassion and a level head when they walk in with our students, and unfortunately that is not occurring.”

Another bill draft the committee advanced this month would let the public access information about disciplinary proceedings that take place after allegations are substantiated against school district personnel.

Currently, that information is considered part of an employee’s confidential file, but Salazar said if “some type of corrective measure” was implemented, “that’s something we need to look at.”

The Education Committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Oct. 10 in Casper.

Advertisement

Related Posts

Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?