My View

Bullying: 'We Care ... We Can Help'
By TAMARA USELMAN/School Administrator, June 2018

MY SCHOOL DISTRICT was hit hard by the deeply troubling news we received in late March about the death of a 12-year-old student by suicide. Staff members who had worked intensively with the child were bereft. Then came the erroneous obituary that pinned the death of our student on “extreme bullying at the school.” The obituary was not written by the biological parents nor approved by the legal guardian.

Subsequently, a flurry of copycat news stories by local, state, national and even overseas outlets reported that a 7th-grade student in Bismarck, N.D., had been “bullied to death.” Our schools sustained an international black eye through the scathing comments on social media. Most importantly, a young, artistic, witty middle school student was marginalized even in death when the suicide was attributed to bullying rather than the more complicated truth about adverse childhood experiences.

In an effort to protect the student’s privacy, our district simply stated we were not made aware of any bullying. We also restated to all Bismarck students: “We care, we are here, we can help.”

So was bullying involved, and does it matter? In a word, yes. Legally, ethically and strategically, it does. It matters to our students and our schools — and because bullying solu-tions require community attention, it should matter to everybody.

An Action Plan
The Bismarck school district policy defines bullying as conduct “so severe, pervasive or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student’s educational opportunities, places the student in actual and reasonable fear of harm … fear of damage to property of the student, and substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a public school.”

We’ve seen physical bullying decline in our district, while cyberbullying has been on the rise. When bullying appears in any form, it must be referred to law enforcement if there is evidence of a crime being committed. When a bullying incident is reported during school, on school premises, in a school district vehicle or at any school- or district-sanctioned activity, it’s investigated by the district.

School bullying demands an ethical A-B-C response:

» Ace bandage. When we receive a report of bullying, caring adults and peers wrap the victim in support.

» Bully (or bullies) receives consequences. They also are taught replacement behaviors.

» Curriculum goals in the social emotional arena are assessed along with the school’s discipline data to identify where re-teaching is needed.

Community Obligation
Bullying is pervasive. The community shares responsibility with the schools to establish, uphold and model a standard of behavior. Educators, parents and community members jointly must teach students the life skills of self-regulation, conflict resolution and what it means to be an upstander rather than a bystander when it comes to bullying actions.

During late winter and early spring, the Bismarck school board’s task force studied bullying and made recommendations for curriculum, parent education, communication and district policy. A handful of parents showed up for the public forums on bullying. We have more work to do.

Our human family suffered a tragic loss when our middle school student committed suicide. To reduce the loss to the slogan “bullied to death” cheats us all.

First, our school staff are among the best levers for improving children’s lives. When given a tip that bullying is occurring, staff members respond.

Second, bullying is but one issue with which a student may be struggling. A multi-tiered system of supports is necessary when dealing with youth.

Finally, a better understanding of our middle schooler’s life could offer a lesson about serving all young people who walk a similar path and all adults who need to be the difference makers.

TAMARA USELMAN moves from the superintendency in Bismarck, N.D., to a consulting position at the end of June. Twitter: @supebps. The author adapted this column from her blog.