District unveils policy to prevent bullying in and out of schools

The D.C. Office of Human Rights presented a model citywide bullying prevention policy to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) on Thursday, making the District one of the first cities in the nation to take such a broad approach to protecting young people from harassment.

Gray signed a law in June that requires schools and all other youth-serving agencies — including public libraries, parks and Metro — to develop anti-bullying policies. Each policy must meet certain requirements based on the law, guided by a model policy the city’s Youth Bullying Prevention Task Force developed.

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The task force recommended language that agencies can adopt, including provisions that require each agency to define bullying and outline how victims and witnesses can report bullying incidents. The model policy also suggests investigation procedures and possible consequences for bullies, from reprimands up to a ban from certain government facilities.

Suggested language in the policy defines bullying as “any severe, pervasive or persistent act or conduct whether physical, electronic or verbal” that singles someone out based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, age, appearance, sexual orientation or other characteristics. Such bullying could create fear of physical harm, affect physical or mental health, interfere with academic performance or the ability to participate in activities, according to the policy.

Bullying “is an enormous problem that at best is understated in D.C. and across the country,” Gray said Thursday. “The most important thing is to ensure we can take this work and make it into a reality.”

The policy is designed to prevent bullying, not just address it after it occurs, by aiming to reach all District students and adults, regardless of whether they have been bullied. The policy also outlines a plan to address those who are at a higher risk of bullying or being bullied, said John Roman, one of the co-authors of the policy.

“This is groundbreaking,” said Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “We certainly know that youths face discrimination and bullying not just in school, but in a lot of different settings.”

There is no federal law that directly addresses bullying, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Every state except Montana has some form of bullying prevention law.

“What is key is the directive to create a culture of respect and safety in all of the agencies,” said Caltha Crowe, a retired elementary school teacher who consults with schools across the country on bullying prevention. “When children are taught to include, respect and take care of each other, then bullying is far less likely to occur.”

The schools and youth-serving agencies will submit their individual policies to the task force, which will review them to ensure they are compliant with the law. The task force includes representatives from government agencies and advocacy organizations, school administrators and teachers, mental health professionals, parents and students.

Roman said the District’s policy is different because it comes from a public health perspective rather than a justice system perspective.

“This is radically different than typical policies that are about rules and regulations,” said Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a D.C. think tank. “It’s all about trying to change the climate of places and changing norms.”

As with any policy that aims to change a social norm, this one has its challenges, Gaylord said. He said some states struggle with implementation.

“Given the size of D.C., it should be less of a challenge,” Gaylord said. “But implementation is always a key part of protecting young people.”

 
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