New Wisconsin law on school safety plans, pupil records and school bullying

Wednesday of the fourth week of September is now "Bullying Awareness Day" in Wisconsin, thanks to the new law on school safety plans, pupil records and school bullying (2009 Wisconsin Act 309) signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle last week. Some of the highlights:
  • Schools (public and private) must now hold unannounced "school safety incident" drills at least twice a year, which can be in addition to or in place of fire drills (required monthly) or tornado drills (required semiannually) already required by law.
  • Schools (public and private) must establish school safety plans:
"A school safety plan shall be created with the active participation of appropriate parties, as specified by the school board or governing body of the private school. The appropriate parties may include local law enforcement officers, fire fighters, school administrators, teachers, pupil services professionals, as defined in s. 118.257 (1) (c), and mental health professionals. A school safety plan shall include general guidelines specifying procedures for emergency prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery."
[Comment: Why aren't parents included as "appropriate parties"?]
  • State law on confidentiality of pupil records is modified to require information sharing between schools and law enforcement of pupil records for school safety and juvenile justice purposes, and to require that district attorneys notify schools when criminal charges are filed against students and of the ultimate disposition of the charges.
  • The state Department of Public Instruction must develop a model school bullying policy by March 1, 2010 [not sure how that works; the effective date of this law will be May 26, 2010], including:
1. A definition of bullying.
2. A prohibition on bullying.
3. A procedure for reporting bullying that allows reports to be made confidentially.
4. A prohibition against a pupil retaliating against another pupil for reporting an incident of bullying.
5. A procedure for investigating reports of bullying.The procedure shall identify the school district employee in each school who is responsible for conducting the investigation and require that the parent or guardian of each pupil involved in a bullying incident be notified.
6. A requirement that school district officials and employees report incidents of bullying and identify the persons to whom the reports must be made.
7. A list of disciplinary alternatives for pupils that engage in bullying or who retaliate against a pupil who reports an incident of bullying.
8. An identification of the school−related events at which the policy applies.
9. An identification of the property owned, leased, or used by the school district on which the policy applies.
10. An identification of the vehicles used for pupil transportation on which the policy applies.
Each school board must adopt an anti-bullying policy by August 15, 2010, and can do so by adopting the DPI's model anti-bullying policy. I would expect that many school districts already have codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies that overlap with the model policy's checklist. (Could a school board adopt a policy that doesn't include all the elements of the model policy? The statute's not clear.) I'll be interested to see how the DPI defines "bullying" in its model policy. At one end of the spectrum, it clearly should include incidents of physically actualized abuse and harassment (i.e. battery). At the other end of the spectrum, it may be tricky to include "cyberbullying" in the policy if the prohibited actions don't occur on school property, on school buses or at school-related events (items 8-10 above; these track state law restrictions that provide that school disciplinary action can be imposed on prohibited student conduct only if the conduct occurs on school grounds, on school transportation or at school-related events—except for bomb threats made off-site, and except where a student assaults a school employee or official, which is subject to discipline whether the assault occurs on school grounds or not).

The elements of the model policy that are of most interest to me are the requirement that parents of each student involved in a bullying incident be notified of the incident, and the requirement that school district officials and employees report all bullying incidents to a designated authority. It's not hard to imagine a child remaining silent to mom or dad about mental or physical abuse encountered at school out of embarrassment, shame, a victim's sense that the abuse is deserved, or that "that's just the way things are." Parents need to know what's going on, when it's going on, to ensure that the right steps are taken to protect their student's safety, and to be able to reinforce to their student their values on where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For school districts that do not currently have consistent practices for reporting or collecting school safety data, the requirement that all bullying incidents be reported should give schools valuable data for better school safety oversight, planning and prevention. That information, in turn (whether disclosed voluntarily or as part of public records), could be an important tool for improving the accountability of schools to students, parents and their communities for ensuring school safety.

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