Anti-Bullying Legislation: Not a Solution, But a Start
In 2001, New York State began to require all schools to file a Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, familiarly referred to as VADIR. The idea was that school people would be held more accountable for school discipline if a report enumerating violent or disruptive incidents had to be filed with the state at the end of the school year.
That year, at a meeting of regional superintendents in my area, the number of incidents reported varied hugely from one district to the next. Some of the largest districts reported a much smaller number of incidents than the smallest districts. The district that reported the
greatest number of incidents by far (and was subsequently investigated by the State Education Department) was a small rural district which, from its report, looked like every day was pure mayhem.
The problem, of course, was in the interpretation of what constituted a violent or disruptive incident. Some administrators felt as if they had to report every time a kid called another kid a dork. Others felt that a fight in the hall was only reportable if blood were drawn.
Needless to say, over the years the State Education Department found it necessary to revise definitions, forms, and instructions. Companies that profit from every new state initiative found a way to produce software that made reporting easier. Money was spent from tight school budgets to train the reporters. Still, I can find no data that leads me to believe that VADIR reporting resulted in a decrease of violent or disruptive incidents. Maybe it has; I hope it has.
The mandate was based on the idea that what gets measured gets done. In this case, if principals had to report every incident, it seemed likely that they would pay more attention to maintaining order. State Ed had the right intentions; whether the plan worked is debatable.
New Jersey schools have a similar reporting mandate this year in the form of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act passed by the state legislature. There are teeth to this legislation in that if a principal fails to recognize or deal with an incident of bullying in a timely fashion, he or she can be subject to disciplinary action. In addition, the state will grade each school on its progress and grades must be posted on the schools’ websites.
There is no question that we need to take bullying seriously and act immediately to protect all of our children. Bullying is the more insidious form of violent or disruptive behaviors; the results can easily be the same. The problem with New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, however, will be the same as with New York’s VADIR: understanding the definitions of the behavior and responding appropriately. Given the personal penalties to administrators, it seems likely that they will err on the most conservative side, and it’s possible that some kids, particularly in elementary school, may be disciplined or suspended for what would ordinarily pass as run of the mill childish behavior. On the other hand, having to post the school’s grade for bullying reduction might entice administrators to put the most benign spin on a student’s behavior. Alexandra Rice reports in EdWeek that Marcus Rayner, the executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, says that the law puts too much responsibility on administrators. “There are so many ways they can make inadvertent or honest mistakes while trying to do the right thing, “ he says. So who knows? This whole set-up reminds me a little of the pressure on schools to improve test scores, and we all know that aberrations that have occurred as a result.
Still, drawing attention to bullying is a good thing, and the policy will probably have to pass through several possibly painful iterations until it’s actually usable. Whether it will actually diminish bullying remains to be seen. I hope so, but I’m skeptical. Still, it’s a start, and at the very least, it puts anti-bullying measures on the front burner. It will be interesting to see the results of this new initiative.