District Reexamines Bullying Policy

A change in state law has called for Birmingham Public Schools to re-address its bullying policy. As a result, administrators in the district are turning to students for input.

BPS Treasurer Robert Lawrence was one of several administrators responsible for the decision to involve students with the changes.

“When it’s a big issue that impacts students, in particular at the high schools, we get opinion and feedback from the community,” Lawrence said. “We try to get the opinions of students considered, and for the issue of bullying specifically it was pretty obvious to go and talk to them.”

Last November, Michigan state legislators signed into law a bill that would call for school districts across the state to re-examine anti-harassment policies. In accordance with the changes to state legislature regarding the harassment and bullying of students within schools, policymakers in the BPS district will be reassessing their current anti-bullying code.

Deputy Superintendent Paul DeAngelis explained the reasoning behind the policy re-examination.

“The changes came from a state law [about bullying] that changed,” DeAngelis said. “Last November and December, the state passed a new law that required districts to have a more comprehensive policy about bullying.”

Lawrence noted that BPS will be making changes even though their current policy is already in compliance with the new state law.

“The desire to make changes is typically the result of state law,” Lawrence said. “It may have a provision in it worded in a very specific way, and so we’ll have to amend our policies because of that. Even though we are in compliance, you want to make sure you get the specific language into the policy.”

BPS policymakers agreed the issue of bullying affected students enough to warrant asking for student opinions. Mirroring their actions with the installation of cameras within schools, board members decided to talk to high school students about the upcoming changes in order to gather their thoughts.

“There have been some informal discussions among board members,” DeAngelis said. “We were having some general conversations about it – since this policy was so specific to [students], it would be great to get some ideas from them.”

On the 29th of February, DeAngelis and Lawrence spoke with Seaholm students within the FLEX program. Robin Moten, an instructor in the FLEX program, expressed that she approved of the move by administrators to gather student input.

“I think it’s great,” Moten said. “Any time you have a group that you’re trying to influence, I think the smartest thing to do is involve the true stakeholders in that community right away. It only makes sense to involve students, because they’re right on the front line of anything going on within the building.”

After talking to students at Seaholm, Lawrence and DeAngelis met with the Student Council at Groves. The process of gathering opinions from students expanded outside of the study body, as both students and school administrators became involved at some level. With the feedback gathered, administrators such as Seaholm principal Deanna Lancaster have been working on reporting the results to BPS administrators.

“We’ll be intimately involved with [the process],” Lancaster said. “Ultimately when it’s myself and the assistant principals, in order to get reports anonymously and fairly, we get deeply involved.”

Moten stated that though the teachers had not been asked about the upcoming changes in depth, anti-bullying has been a major focal point for Seaholm faculty.

“They haven’t really asked for our opinions,” Moten said. “We’ll do surveys that they e-mail us, but nothing specific about policy changes yet. But we have talked, and the faculty here at Seaholm has talked about bullying – that was our entire MLK day professional development.”

The process of incorporating student viewpoints into the nascent policy is still in the works, but Lawrence noted that the feedback was certainly having an impact on bullying-related policymaking decisions.

“There was a commentary at Seaholm about the definition of disability harassment,” Lawrence stated. “There is a section about it in existing policy, and there was some general conversation that we may need to clarify that it may not be only a physical disability, but mental disabilities as well.”

DeAngelis noted that he and Lawrence were very satisfied with the feedback that they received from students.

“The feedback Lawrence and I got at both schools was phenomenal,” DeAngelis said. “We’re always so impressed when we give students an opportunity to participate like this, and with how well they can express themselves.”

Working student feedback into policy students is on the BPS agenda for the near future, set to be discussed at the next working session BPS administrators will be attending.

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