Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Whose values will win if school districts consolidate?


If all of our school districts are consolidated into one, I want to know whose values and priorities the “streamlined” model will adopt to deal with student bullying.

The name itself is too slight, according to film director Nic Balthazar. His film, “Ben X,” is based upon the story of a boy whose schoolmates tormented him relentlessly and who ultimately killed himself.

“It is psychological warfare,” Balthazar said in a Los Angeles Times interview (http://articles.latimes.com). “It is like psychological degrading of somebody else. This goes on in every school in the Western world and is often a lot harder than the harshest reality we portray in the movies.”

An insightful Web site, www.bullyonline.org, documents a growing understanding among psychiatric professionals that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result from an accumulation of “many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.”

The term “Complex PTSD” is used to differentiate this condition from the type of psychiatric injury caused by a major life-threatening event.

The critical factor is that the sufferer is unable to escape from these overwhelming events. The Web site relates that in the United Kingdom, at least 16 children kill themselves each year because they are bullied at school. “Each of these deaths is unnecessary, foreseeable and preventable.”

“Unable to escape.” Can you envision the dread of a child required to attend pre-game assemblies in which members of the student body are permitted to single out classmates for ridicule and abuse? Each week this child wonders if she will be one of those picked. Every week that she is not, grants relief that is only temporary.

Or imagine the ongoing stress for a child who is always chosen last for the team? Who is pushed in the hallway through a gauntlet of students all larger and far more powerful? Who is taunted on the bus or in the classroom?

Serving as backdrop to the incidents of abuse is this child’s awareness that she has no friends. Even when a direct campaign of harassment is not in play, this child remains an outcast.

The daily reality of required attendance at our local public schools is that children are “unable to escape.” But when I looked at the official policies for two of our local districts, I found very different priorities.

One district has an in-depth code that acknowledges the severity of bullying and spells out explicit recourses. Its schools pursue holistic approaches that engage the entire student population through ongoing informative assemblies.

School employees are educated about characteristics that make children vulnerable to abuse. Employees are also required to report known incidents of bullying, whether or not the victim files a complaint.

Clearly, this is a model policy that should be replicated countywide.

But when I examined a second district’s policy, I encountered far more ink devoted to crimes against property.

Offenses toward students acknowledged by this policy include “profanity” and “threats.” It also permits students who are the victims of violence to transfer to a “safe” school.

This policy fails, in my opinion, to adequately encompass bullying — which can include social exclusion as well as overt taunts or violence.

A third school district allowed harassment of a student to escalate for years and culminate with physical violence. The American Civil Liberties Union finally had to intervene when the family achieved no recourse.

I criticized the ACLU for failing to make a distinction between our varying local districts — but if consolidation is allowed to progress, then all of our local districts will come under the exact same management.

The consequences of bullying are far too devastating to consolidate district management, if the policies that “win out” will trivialize the effects of bullying. Whatever happens because of this discussion, the importance of student safety needs to be our chief concern — and not how much money we’ll save.

Published Jan. 6, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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