Anti-bullying task force would fit with state’s lean mean approach to school safety

A group of Colorado rights and education organizations is calling on Governor-elect John Hickenlooper and state lawmakers to establish a task force on school bullying and harassment in Colorado. The organizations cite the alarming rash of recent high-profile incidents around the country where harassment led gay high school and university students to commit suicide.

“Although these tragedies did not happen here in Colorado, harassment, taunting, and violence are pervasive in our schools—despite the policies we have in place,” said Brad Clark, director of gay rights group One Colorado. “We must head off the crisis by addressing this problem immediately. As adults, it is our moral responsibility to make schools safe for all our children.”

In addition to OneColorado, organizations behind the move include the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the Colorado Association of School Boards.

The task force would conduct a sort of listening tour of the state’s school districts, taking in the assessments of students and teachers and members of the community, evaluating the effectiveness of local and state-wide strategies, offering trainings and seeking to find areas for improvement. (Read the Safe Schools letter here (pdf).)

A big problem

As has become clear from mounting research and from regular installments of the news, bullied children are sad and isolated. Their grades suffer. They stay home from school. And, as the nation learned in the last months, they jump off bridges and hang and shoot themselves.

In Colorado, according to a 2009 Healthy Kids Colorado survey (pdf), roughly 19 percent of all high school kids report being bullied. Roughly 30 percent say they got into fights. Roughly 7 percent have been threatened with weapons. Indeed, last year more than 5 percent of all Colorado high schoolers stayed home from school for fear of bullying. That’s 12,000 teen students. Among certain demographic groups, the percentages soar. According to Linda Kanan, director of the Department of Public Safety’s School Safety Resource Center, roughly 37 percent of gay and transgender kids avoid school for fear of bullying.

That’s a very serious problem, Kanan told the Colorado Independent, harassment in general being a significant area she seeks to address as part of her office’s mission to help make schools safe. Kanan said that she would welcome the establishment of a task force as a part of the state’s most-bang-for-the-buck approach to school safety, especially given that all federal funding that went to individual school districts in the state for safe school projects was cut last year. She said the task force envisioned, which would deliver a better picture of the diverse lay of the land district to district as a way to ratchet up effectiveness, makes sense.

“Colorado is a diverse place, developing a comprehensive picture is difficult. Nationally designed one size-fits-all approaches will be less effective here,” she said. “What are the issues, exactly? For that, you have to go and examine the climate and culture and the differences from community to community, to see what can be implemented, to develop long-term strategies.”

Kanan added that the issue itself of bullying and harassment changes, that the outline of the problem alters from year to year.

“In the last decade, online media has changed things. How should kids best be safe online, when they’re texting. Conditions change for kids. There are new threats to their psychological and physical safety.”

Post-Columbine Colorado

In fact, Colorado has been a leader in taking up school safety as a priority ever since the Columbine school shootings rocked the nation in 1999. The state legislature a year later passed anti-bullying laws and statutes that outlined procedures and training programs to guard against school harassment, and in 2008 the legislature set up Kanan’s four-person division within the state’s Public Safety Department to direct attention to the issue in a sustained and comprehensive way. This year, Attorney General John Suthers released inspiring data from the Safe2Tell and Safe2Text programs, onetime nonprofit 24/7 anonymous hotlines embraced by the AG’s office and the Department of Public Safety.

In roughly the last five years, Colorado students have filed more than 2,700 reports concerning bullying, gangs and other problems through the program. The AG’s office reports that the tips have been crucial as a prevention, leading authorities to “intervene in thousands of potentially dangerous and life-threatening situations.” Since 2005, Safe2Tell tips have led to 284 school disciplinary actions, 67 arrests, 393 investigations and 344 counseling referrals.

Mike Saccone, attorney general communications director, told the Independent that the AG’s office is committed to continue to find new ways to combat the problem. Like Kanon, however, he nods at both recession realities and the progress Colorado has already made building an infrastructure to address the problem.

“The Office of the Attorney General… would welcome any help from the legislature and the governor-elect and his staff. That said, we are already doing great work through Safe2Tell, with our partner agencies and with the assistance of the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. We do not believe the governor or legislature need to start over from scratch.”

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