Tammy Simpson is an anti-bullying advocate and the founder of the Brandon Bitner Memorial Scholarship Fund. Glen Retief’s memoir about bullying, “The Jack Bank,” won a 2011 Lambda Literary Award. Retief teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.
This is their first piece for the AJC:
By Tammy Simpson and Glen Retief
As our kids settle in for the second half of the school year, spare a thought for this number: 160,000. That’s the estimated number of American students who will stay at home every day this semester due to fear of being bullied.
Americans spent much of December transfixed by images of elementary school gun violence. However, the fact is that the average student is infinitely more likely to be bullied than shot by a lunatic. Bullying — which can, of course, include gun violence, especially in rough neighborhoods — is the routine risk that can shake loose the foundations of children’s security.
Once, parents typically reacted to a disclosure that their kid was being victimized with a pep talk. “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger,” they told their kids. They talked about defensive kicks and punches.
But today many parents know this isn’t enough. Both of this article’s authors have firsthand knowledge that leads us to advocate for stronger parental responses to schoolyard harassment. Tammy Simpson’s son, Brandon Bitner, stepped in front of a tractor-trailer in November 2010 because of brutal persecution at his Pennsylvania high school. Glen Retief’s parents waited too long to complain to the administration when he was being bullied in an apartheid boarding school.
When parents report bullying, however, they are likely to encounter an unexpected problem.
“We’ll take care of it,” principals often tell parents. If the bullying continues, and parents call to follow up, administrators frequently comment: “We certainly took action, ma’am, but unfortunately, we’re not at liberty to tell you, because of privacy laws.”
When children claim the school is “doing nothing” about bullying, these parents lack specific evidence to reassure their offspring. Even if a public community meeting gets called to assess whether the school is appropriately handling incidents of bullying and harassment, principals and superintendents can plead privacy considerations in declining to reveal their responses to specific incidents.
These problems were vividly dramatized in the recent, critically-acclaimed documentary “Bully,” which painted a portrait of parents and school administrators apparently separated by a gulf of mutual distrust. How did we get here?
The main federal law governing educational records is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act passed in 1974. This law also sets the tone local regulations. FERPA’s main role is to protect students from unfair discrimination based on inappropriate public revelation of their grades, IQ’s, disciplinary records, or other personal information.
FERPA is fairly unique. In much of the world — for example in Retief’s home country of South Africa — scores from the national high school graduation exam are published in newspapers. College grades grace bulletin boards. Likewise, disciplinary decisions are generally as public as sentences in an adult court case here in North America.
There are some powerful benefits to this approach. Public shame often motivates academic improvement: there is nothing like the dread of an F published in a national newspaper to spur a student in the direction of the calculus or social studies textbook. Likewise, the prospect of public exposure keeps many boys and girls from vicious sadism and harassment in the post-gym locker room.
Still, the humiliation of failing a test in front of one’s peers can also be demoralizing, especially if one studied hard and simply feels stupid. And FERPA’s secrecy does give young students an important second chance. In the age of Google and lawsuit-driven risk aversion, do we really want kids’ future employers to know forever about that joint they were caught smoking under the bleachers, at the tender, foolish age of 14?
Interestingly, FERPA regulations themselves recognize the need to let victims know about disciplinary outcomes, so that they can feel safer at school. Sub-part D, Section 99.31, permits schools to disclose, without the perpetrator’s consent, “the final result of the disciplinary proceeding” to “a victim of an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence.”
The problem, though, is the definition of “a crime of violence.” Does smacking someone on the back of the head qualify? How about founding a Facebook group dedicated to insulting a fellow student? If principals breach FERPA regulations, they can forfeit federal funding. By contrast, there is no legal penalty for withholding the results of disciplinary proceedings from bullying survivors.
We aren’t advocating FERPA be abolished or gutted wholesale. However, Congress should rewrite FERPA rewritten to explicitly redefine “crime of violence” to include bullying in all its forms, as we understand it today — physical, emotional, and cyber-bullying. State educational departments should encourage greater transparency.
We believe these relatively straightforward reforms could make a tremendous difference in securing safer schools and improving the quality of American education.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog