St. Paul bullying policies come under scrutiny

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 9:54 PM

The district hasn't revised harassment and hazing policies since 2008. On Tuesday, the school board will take another look.

As high-profile bullying cases remain in the spotlight and much public debate continues over the legal and ethical roles that school officials play in preventing bullying, the St. Paul school board has decided to review its own policies.

"For many of our kids, the schoolhouse in some instances can be their only sanctuary where they feel safe," said John Brodrick, a board member. "That's part of the sacredness of the school. I want schools to be those special places, and we need a policy that would support that."

The district's "harassment, violence and other offensive behavior" and "hazing" policies, which cover bullying, will be reviewed Tuesday. They haven't been revised since 2008.

School boards have faced increasing pressure in recent years to update their bullying policies so that they would not be held legally responsible in the case of injuries or suicides, said Jim Roth who specializes in education law at St. Mary's University and Hamline University.

"I think the education community recognized a long time ago that no education can take place if kids are in fear," Roth said. "I think a large percentage of them can recognize it's a fundamental right not to be bullied."

As it stands, there is no legal definition of bullying or harassment although there is a requirement for districts to have policies against those acts. That leaves it to school board members to create their own definitions.

The process becomes more complicated when school boards attempt to include groups of people who have historically been bullied because some fear that including group names could hinder free speech or inevitably exclude someone.

The district's harassment and hazing policies cover topics that range from defining harassment to ways for witnesses to broach it.

The current policy, created in 2005, seeks to maintain a "respectful learning and work environment" in the schools that is "free from harassment and violence based on an individual's race, creed, sex, marital status, national origin, age, color, religion, ancestry, status with respect to public assistance, sexual or affectional orientation, or disability."

The policy requires board members and district staff to intervene if bullying or harassment is witnessed and outlines actions that should be taken. Students also are required to report bullying to a school official if they see it.

The report the administration will present to the board the week includes the Minnesota School Board Association's "bullying prohibition" policy and a letter from the U.S. Department of Education to school board members that gives direction in writing policies that deal with bullying.

The St. Paul board is not set to change its policies Tuesday, although board conversations sometimes do lead to changes.

Several board members were reluctant to comment, saying they wanted to hear the administration's presentation and look at the policy before making a judgment.

The meeting will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the district's administrative offices at 360 Colborne St.

To read the policy and check out the administration's planned presentation go to boe.spps.org/2011.html

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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