A proposed bill making its way through the Texas Legislature could bring about new, statewide policies regarding how public school districts handle cases of bullying and cyberbullying.
If passed into law, Senate Bill 179 would require each school district’s board of trustees to develop and enact policies that include notifying the guardians of both victims and alleged bullies of an incident within one day of it being first reported. That would provide all parties involved in bullying incidents with a list of available counseling options and create a procedure that allows students, parents, teachers and administrators to anonymously report cases of bullying. Under the law, school districts would also be required to report any bullying action that meets the Texas Penal Code’s definition of assault or harassment to law enforcement.
“We will follow any and all legislation once it’s finalized,” Sherman Independent School District Assistant Superintendent Tammy Smalskas said. “And we will go above and beyond what the law requires. We believe that all of our environments should be safe, orderly and cross-culturally responsive.”
Smalskas said Sherman ISD’s definition of bullying — much like the state’s and other districts’ — is any form of written, verbal or physical expression that exploits an imbalance of power between the victim and perpetrator and interferes with a student’s education or disrupts the operation of a school. Consequences can result in student-mediation sessions, “stay away” contracts and, in more extreme cases, suspensions and expulsions.
But the assistant superintendent said a school districts’ first step in effectively combating bullying of any form should always begin with anti-bullying education and supportive programs that allow students to develop positive relationships with one another.
“We want to be proactive versus reactive,” Smalskas said.
While the Denison Independent School District takes a similar, early-intervention approach, Denison High School Junior Counselor Kelli Kempson said getting students who are already being bullied to discuss their situation is difficult.
“I think in any case that involves bullying, you have kids that are hesitant to report,” Kempson said. “We hear a lot of students that come in say, ‘I don’t want to be a snitch,’ so to speak. ‘I don’t want it to get worse,’ ‘I don’t want to be a tattle tale.’ In any situation that there has been bullying, we’re going to have to call that student in that’s been accused, so I think a lot of times they are hesitant to report it. But with cyberbullying, there’s a paper trail there.”
Kempson said that trail takes many digital forms, including negative phone calls, text messages, emails, social media postings, photos and videos. But because students often have their own personal smartphones and computers and use them outside of school, Kempson said cyberbullying is particularly pervasive.
“It’s not face-to-face, so it’s definitely a harder form of bullying for the children to deal with because they can’t escape it,” Kempson said. “It’s 24/7.”
School districts are typically allowed to intervene in cases of off-campus or after-hours cyberbullying if they affect students during the school day or disrupt campus proceedings. Kempson encouraged any student who believes he or she has been bullied to collect proof, if possible, and to always speak with a teacher, administrator or counselor about the issue. But the DHS counselor said adult family members can keep an eye out for online bullying, too.
“We strongly encourage parents to be aware of what their kids are doing online,” Kempson said. “Ask to friend or follow your kids on social media or ask another trusted adult. That may be a parent of a friend to your child. You can ask for their passwords, even though a lot of the time they won’t want to give that up.”
Kempson said bullying of all forms is destructive, but cyberbullying is the latest manifestation and one that needs to be brought to an end as it can spread easily and have long-lasting effects.
“It’s definitely something we want to put a stop to in this age of social media and everything being out there online,” Kempson said. “It’s a topic and an issue we all need to be aware of.”