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City schools shift attack on bullying

In an effort to cope with a number of recent incidents, the Providence Public School District is reevaluating its bullying and harassment policy.

A revised policy encourages schools to investigate bullying cases more thoroughly, said Christina O'Reilly, facilitator of communications and media relations for the school district.

"What we're trying to avoid is really bumping students around without getting to the root of the problem," O'Reilly said, referring to the district's original policy to transfer misbehaving students to different schools.

"Maybe the child doing the bullying is being picked on by another student," she said.

The new policy also addresses the relatively new issue of cyberbullying. "When the policy was written five years ago, that was not a problem," Randy Ross, equity and diversity specialist at Brown's Education Alliance said. Ross added that cyberbullying can be difficult to handle because "a lot of it starts outside of school."

The revision allows schools to intervene in cyberbullying cases if there is any "substantial disruption" in a student's life at school — for example, O'Reilly said, "if he or she feels intimidated, or stops attending a class."

Another major change, O'Reilly said, is that the policy now targets harassment as well as bullying.

"It's a bit of a legal distinction, but it's an important one," Ross said. "Harassment is bullying behavior that is motivated by prejudice or bias against what are called protected classes."

The Education Alliance has been working with the revising committee to create as comprehensive a policy as possible. "They needed help in developing a policy that would put more teeth into the district," Ross said. "They were finding from their own data — their own information — that incidents of bullying were escalating to violence because they were not being handled at a lower level."

The new policy — which O'Reilly said was created with feedback from teachers and administrators — is expected to eliminate discrepancies in the way different schools react to infractions.

"We found that what was punishable at one school was just being counseled at another school," O'Reilly said. The new system is flexible, she said, but it provides "a lot more guidance as to how you should proceed with a case."

"The policy is a fantastic guidepost," she said, "and now the procedural work is being done on how to actually implement the policy."


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