A combination of specialists and anonymous reporting methods has created an new atmosphere at schools following the implementation of an anti-bullying law, school officials say after one year after it went into effect.
"We can see a complete transformation of school cultures," said Pleasantville anti-bullying coordinator Mark Delcher.
With more awareness comes an apparent increase in reporting, said Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center.
Converting unreported and unacknowledged incidents into reported incidents helps empower the students, and lets them realize there is support, Stephens said.
The financial burden of the law has been an ongoing struggle for some school districts though.
While Pleasantville was awarded the highest amount, about $11,000, in state funding, other schools received amounts as low as several hundred.
The cost of implementing the new law in the Vineland district was unknown to interim Assistant Superintendent Keith Figgs, but he said because of the fiscal limit, the district has to keep its methods cost-effective.
Vineland uses a form to report incidents that gets sent up the ladder to the principal, Figgs said.
Of about 745 reported incidents in the Vineland district, about half were substantiated as bullying and 260 were from the middle school level, he said.
Even in the Pinelands Regional School District, the majority of reports are coming from the middle school levels, grades 7 through 9.
“We have an online discipline program through our Student Data Management System, OnCourse, which notifies vice principal and counselors immediately,” said coordinator Karen Kenny in an email. “It is difficult to manage investigations in the timeline when incidents occur via facebook, the weekend, bus stops and/or school.”
The Pleasantville School District also uses an online reporting system, but through a private company, and has noticed the majority of reports come from grades three through six. While an exact figure was not available, Delcher estimates it costs about $1,700 per building.
He said the cost is justified in the management and effect of the problems with students.
“We have seen a significant reduction in the types of behaviors that the anti-bullying statute was intended to stop,” Delcher said.
But there have also been beneficial and unintentional effects. Delcher said parents are especially using the online system to report incidents that are heard by the grapevine in neighborhoods or through friend circles, and students are able to report bullying experienced online or from students in neighboring schools.
It is a beneficial method because it allows those students who are observers to report incidents without being called a snitch, Delcher said.
“If you take the problem seriously, it cannot be a box in the library,” Delcher said.
In order to comply with the law and remain within budget, some schools have continued using the practice of anonymous tip boxes in areas like cafeterias and libraries. Regardless of the method, once reports are received, investigations are done and steps are taken to prevent the issue from escalating, school officials said.
“To honestly deal with it, you cannot treat the issue with a punitive hammer for the bully,” Delcher said.
“For years, the issue was treated as a disciplinary issue. Somebody violated a student code and is punished, and that’s it. Schools would wash their hands off the issue,” Delcher said.
New methods treat both sides equally as needing help by giving the support and understanding to the victim that they are not alone, while the bully is dealt with in a manner to find the root of the actions and attitude.
A survey was given to students in the school district at the beginning of the year, and then again at the end of the year. Delcher said the results showed students were much more sensitive to their own behaviors and understand the idea that there are no innocent bystanders in bullying situations.
“It is going to be interesting to see how they grow up,” Delcher said about students who are growing up with the effects of the new law.
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