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Office of Safe and Healthy Students Promotes Holistic Anti-bullying Approach

Location: Nationwide By Becky Lewis Published May 2014

If a problem persists at the same level for nearly 10 years, it may not be getting any worse, but it’s also not getting any better. Without a change in approach, the status quo might go on indefinitely.

When it comes to preventing bullying in our nation’s schools, the U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Safe and Healthy Students is taking steps toward ensuring that status quo comes to an end.

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the U.S. Department of Education released a School Discipline Guidance Package in January 2014 aimed at helping states, districts and schools develop practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensure that those policies and practices comply with federal law. In addition to a "Dear Colleague" letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the package includes A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline, Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources and Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, and can be downloaded from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html.

According to David Esquith, director of ED’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students, the most recent data issued jointly by the Departments of Education and Justice indicate that the number of students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school has not changed significantly since 2005: "Despite the fact that schools have been implementing an array of anti-bullying programs for a number of years and states have passed anti-bullying laws, our most recent data suggest that we’re not making significant progress in preventing bullying. As a result, we are encouraging a holistic approach to disruptive behaviors like bullying. Our new School Climate Transformation Grants will support school districts and state educational agencies in their efforts to improve school climate and enhance social and emotional competencies. Students who are better able to regulate their own emotions and behaviors, empathize with others, and respect their peers and teachers are less likely to bully."

 "While our first priority must be protecting students who are victims of bullying, efforts to prevent bullying using a punishment-based approach have not proven effective to date in reducing the incidence of bullying. The trend to criminalize some behaviors that occur in school can complicate our efforts to promote a positive school climate, respect and kindness," Esquith says.

And he believes that well-trained school resource officers (SROs) can contribute significantly to a positive approach to improving the school climate. Esquith says that adult mentors whom students can trust play a key role in improving students’ abilities to respect themselves and others, and SROs can prove extremely valuable in establishing those types of relationships.

This new approach and the new discipline guidance package are only two of a number of projects and programs related to school safety, security and discipline in which the Office of Safe and Healthy Students plays a role. These include several grant programs aimed at reducing violence and bullying; a multi-government agency project to develop Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans (http://rems.ed.gov/docs/REMS_K-12_Guide_508.pdf) and Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education (http://rems.ed.gov/docs/REMS_IHE_Guide_508.pdf); and promoting the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS.org), a program of ED’s Office of Special Education Programs. PBIS promotes the idea that all teachers, students and staff are involved in all settings to clearly articulate, and give instruction on, expected behaviors.

"A number of SROs in schools where they use the PBIS framework feel very positively about it. An SRO can definitely be an important staff member when it comes to implementing the PBIS framework," Esquith says.