Anti-bullying laws miss the mark and need to be strengthened, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said earlier this month.
Such a move would ensure that school districts are reporting all instances of bullying and make schools safer, he said.
“Bullying is very harmful to students and can have lifelong implications,” DePasquale said. “Strengthening our state law would give us more accurate data to help develop new solutions and make sure every child has the opportunity to learn in a safe environment.”
DePasquale developed his recommendation after completing an audit of the Cumberland Valley School District in Cumberland County. Some parents there complained last fall that the district was doing too little to address bullying among students. The audit included a review of the district’s bullying policy and reporting procedures.
“My team found the district is meeting the letter of the law in managing how it records and reports instances of bullying,” he said. “But, we also found the district has reported only two instances of bullying in the past five school years.”
Bullying reports often misreported
Many incidents are not reported as bullying by districts because of a narrow and subjective definition of bullying in state law, DePasquale said. Instead, they are reported as “Student Code of Conduct” violations in annual Safe Schools reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“Parents may not know about bullying taking place in their schools unless their children tell them about it,” DePasquale said.
Such underreporting makes it difficult, if not impossible, to know just how pervasive bullying is in local schools.
DePasquale credited Cumberland Valley School District Superintendent Dr. David Christopher and his staff for cooperating with the audit team and being responsive to concerns raised by district parents. Dr. Christopher is completing his first year with the district.
Taking steps to address bullying
DePasquale noted that Cumberland Valley School District has taken a number of steps to address bullying in recent years, including:
- The district updated its bullying, harassment and anti-discrimination policies in 2018. The former superintendent sent a district-wide letter stressing harassment and other forms of discrimination are not tolerated. The letter also invited students to join a “SPIRIT” council and asked parents to join a diversity committee, now called the Inclusion Advisory Committee.
- In 2019, it launched a Safe2Say program and provided related training to middle and high school students and staff. It also hired an outside vendor to provide additional trainings on diversity and inclusion.
- At the beginning of the current school year, the district distributed a school climate survey to students, parents and staff, for which the results were still pending at the end of audit fieldwork.
- Christopher sent a districtwide letter outlining the school climate and inclusionary efforts. He has also asked district parents to help by talking to their children about bullying and how to report it.
- In November 2019, the school board approved further updates to the district’s bullying/cyberbullying policy.
Addressing bullying concerns
“Dr. Christopher has worked to address parents’ concerns and promote culture change in his district,” DePasquale said.
The result is a greater awareness of bullying in school now, even when not every parent is completely satisfied. He cited the need to provide all children with a safe learning environment.
DePasquale’s office is working with Pennsylvania‘s Department of Education to look at ways to improve the statutory definition of bullying. In addition, auditors will alert PDE if future audits find districts where the reported number of incidents seems very low.
“We need to make sure reported data about bullying matches the reality of what’s happening in our schools,” he said. “Every child deserves to be able to learn in peace.”