How to Control Student Behavior

The wave of stories about bullying since the beginning of the school year in this country shows no signs of stopping. 

One of the latest stories pulls back the curtain on a settlement between the district and the family of a boy who was paralyzed by a punch to the abdomen by a known bully.   (The hit to the abdomen was so severe it caused a blood clot in a major artery to his spine that left him paralyzed.)

The Ramsey Board of Education in New Jersey settled with the family for $4.2M.  The district says the settlement was "the decision" of the insurance company and that they did nothing wrong.


No, the district was told how bad the evidence was against them, was counseled by the insurance company to pay out and now wants to say, we're paying but we deny we did anything wrong.

From the AP story:

Sawyer Rosenstein was 12 in 2006 when he was paralyzed after being punched in the abdomen by a student whose bullying he had previously complained about.

The family's lawsuit alleged school officials knew or should have known the boy's attacker had violent tendencies and failed to comply with a state anti-bullying law, said the Rosensteins' attorney, Jeffrey Youngman. The boy had punched another student in the face on a school bus a year earlier, but the school kept no record of it or other attacks and the attacker was not subjected to escalating discipline, the suit said.

Just three months before being punched, Rosenstein, then 12, emailed school officials to report he was being bullied and to ask for help.

"I would like to let you know that the bullying has increased," he wrote to his guidance counselor at the Eric Smith Middle School. "I would like to figure out some coping mechanisms to deal with these situations, and I would just like to put this on file so if something happens again, we can show that there was past bullying situations."

Rosenstein is now a first-year student at Syracuse University and says he decided to speak publicly about the case to show that students can recover from being bullied - and to try to make would-be bullies think twice before they get violent.

Imagine if school officials had expelled the bully after the first incident.  Or the next one.  Rosenstein was begging for help and had the presence of mind to get it on paper in a file somewhere and yet it still continued. 

Then there's the story of a 10-year old boy in Ohio who is small for his age and wears ankle braces who brought a BB gun to school to get his bullies to leave him alone.

The boy, who was charged with the delinquency count Monday after police were called to an elementary school in the suburban Cincinnati village of Elmwood Place, also told police that some boys "stuffed him in a trash can" about a year ago, police Sgt. Kevin Vanover said. Vanover said that incident apparently was not reported to police.

Of course, this boy should not have brought any kind of weapon to school.  But it sounds like the boy was being singled out for humiliation.  (On a personal note, kids love to tease for many reasons.  But, of course, they like to look for smaller people who they can also physically intimidate.)

What is interesting is that while many school officials do not seem to be calling police for what clearly are crimes, there is also a wave of school officials calling police when they can't handle behavior situations.

The latest story is from Georgia where a 6-year apparently was having a major meltdown (throwing books and toys and throwing a small shelf at her principal).  The police took her away in handcuffs (because their policy is to handcuff everyone they arrest).  They did not charge her with anything.

In New Mexico, a teacher asked a 13-year to stop talking to a friend and move to another seat.  The girl said no and the teacher called the police.

From the AP story on this issue:

Frustrated teachers aren't getting enough support from above to deal with increasingly extreme student behavior, from sexual harassment in elementary school to children throwing furniture, said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teachers' union.

"There is more chronic and extreme disrespect, disinterest and kids who basically don't care," Bernstein said.

Experts and educators point to a number of factors that lead to the arrests: Some officers are operating without special training. School administrators are desperate to get the attention of uninvolved parents. And overwhelmed teachers are unaware that calling in the police to defuse a situation could lead to serious criminal charges.

The police are not excited about, well, playing cop in these situations.  I'm assuming that in the case of the 6-year old, they were worried that their efforts to restrain the girl might cause them to get sued or hurt or both.  (She was suspended for the rest of the school year and I hope her parents get her some counseling.)

You have to wonder about the backstory here.  Do some kids cause so much disruption that the school/teacher just one day give up and call the police, hoping it will shock the kid/parents into some change?  Do teachers/administrators realize the escalation that calling the police will cause?

We are all parents and I'd say 99% of us have experienced frustration with a child who was acting out, being stubborn, being disrespectful or hurtful to you or their siblings, and so on.  I can fully understand how teachers can be even more frustrated trying to give a lesson with students disrupting the class.

But I've said this before - schools and school districts need to have clear and consistent policies around student behaviors.   If students know that their behavior will not be allowed or given attention in class, you have a fighting chance of changing that behavior. 

(This is something that KIPP does well.  Your class is a team and if you are not on task or disruptive, you get "benched", meaning you stay in class but away from classmates and that means not eating lunch with classmates, talking to classmates, etc..   The parents and students have to read and sign the KIPP handbook.   It has clear rules about cell phones, electronic devices, toys, etc.)

That too many students are being bullied and finding no relief AND teachers/administrators are so frustrated by out of control students that they call the police for help points to some kind of disconnect about student behavior and controlling it.


Catherine said…
Fair warning alert - my niece is the victim of racially motivated bullying (as stated by perpetrators) in an Arizona school and the district there should be counting their lucky stars that I'm not the one advocating for her. The district response there to date is unacceptable. The bullying continues. We're 2+ years into this.

Seems like Seattle's Bullying Policy falls down flat. From their web site:

"if your child is experiencing bullying behaviors at school, here a few actions you should take:

Promptly bring the behaviors to the attention of your child's teacher or counselor. The more information you can provide to the teacher or counselor, such as the name of the other student or student(s), the date the behaviors took place, and the location, the better.
If bullying behavior continues, promptly bring the behaviors to the principal's attention. This may include asking that a Student Intervention Team meeting called for your child. "

The policy says NOTHING about what the step is after the principal fails to respond. Huge missing piece.

I also think we fail to clamp down on unacceptable behavior soon enough in the process. There are patterns to bullying that are clearly identifiable long before the behavior escalates to actions that are clearly bullying. We fail the bullies and the victims (and the teachers) by not stepping in sooner. It's easier to start with control, than reign in behavior.
Anonymous said…
Catherine, the actual Board policy is new and contains a very complete procedure. The procedure seems pretty complicated as I read it and can even include outside investigation. Parents (and school staff) need to be aware of these new policies. I am not sure why we did not get them in kidmail-- I have kids at different schools and I sure didn't. From SPS website: go to the District tab, then School Board tab, then the Board Policues (in sidebar), then under the 3000 series look for Harassment / Intimidation (policies AND procedures). Also do not miss the Anti-Retaliation policy, in a whole different section, D51, under the 5000 series (personnel, but this applies to students too). In short any parent that thinks their child is being bullied needs to make a written complaint. A written complaint to the principal (and referrring probably to these poloicies, which are new) should get the ball rolling.

Auntie Too
Catherine said…
@ Auntie Too - thanks - I'm glad that steps exist, even if a SSD web site search didn't reveal them first few times through. If a policy isn't communicated (and didn't show up on a SSD web search the first time around) does it really exist? and can it be effective?
SeattleSped said…
There are plenty of principals in our district who would rather put in a place a "safety plan", including calling police, rather than implement a child's IEP for behaviors associated with her/his disability. Oh yeah, that'll help. Call the cops. Like they don't have more important things to do than school admin's job.

My own angelic child (seriously, not at ALL like me) finally bit a bully who had been tormenting her for weeks at school. She has struggled with communication, and apparently the recess monitors were too busy chatting amongst themselves...
Anonymous said…
I'm a teacher in an elementary school. I have recess duty once a week. I have no breaks other than recess 4x a week and a 30 minute lunch when I get the kids out on time. Yes, I have a planning break which is supposed to be a work time during music/pe and that is contracted to do work. When I have it in the morning, I go through folders and address those things parents send in that need to be addressed. When I have time in the pm, I'm correcting papers, planning the next few minutes or finding other stuff - lots of other stuff - to do.

Bullying isn't always on my radar. Sometimes kids don't tell me. If I'm out for one recess a week, I don't always see it or know it is bullying. Sometimes children will tell me someone is bothering them and I'll talk to that someone. I don't know if it is chronic or a one-time event.

I'm saying all this because how much can teachers do? We had a person from the District out to talk about bullying once a couple of years ago.

If you want bullying to stop, you need to advocate for procedures that will address the problem and that means having people trained to deal with it, identify when it is bullying, and follow the events and process of dealing with it. Perhaps trained people on the playground every day who get to know kids and their influence on each other. People who have strategies to mitigate those influences. It will cost money. It will require experienced and trained personnel that are there every day.

How much can you expect of an insitution that cannot afford counselors, regular playground monitors, and reliable follow up by administrators who really don't know if it is bullying, accidental, or over-stimulated kids who have parents that are equally ready to sue if they are defamed erroneously.

School should be a safe place. But, there's an awful lot to cover and it will cost money and demand people who can do it. School is already asked to do so much that society's safety nets should be doing, I don't know if it is possible to do it all.

Haha. I do advocate one place to start: get the money out of administration and back in to school counselors and nurses all day every day.

Floor Pie said…
Sometimes I volunteer at K-2 recess at my son's elementary school. I've never seen anything I'd call "bullying," but there's a lot of complex social interaction going on. These kids are so young and so new at navigating the complex social landscape of school, and they often clumsily err on the side of hurting each other's feelings.

I don't helicopter, but I do get involved if someone looks overwhelmed. There's such a fine line between "kids being kids" and the place where that takes a bad wrong turn. Like last week, when a game of tag devolved into 6 or 7 kids all ganging up on and piling on top of one frightened first grader.

N is right, this stuff is so easy to miss and the teachers are busy enough as it is. I strongly encourage any parent who has the time to volunteer for lunch/recess duty whenever possible. The more caring adults around, the better.
SeattleSped said…
At our elementary, the PTSA pays parents to monitor recess. Of course I'm not blaming teachers. As a working mom, I can't be there.

First, children with disabilities must be ON the radar. Second, the recess monitors often stand together and chat, at least at our school.

I'm sayin' bullies start in elementary and just grow bigger and meaner. It must be nipped in the bud. And some principals and assistant principals have to see discipline as their job, not just sit in their offices with the doors closed and the lights off. Teachers have enough on their plate.
Anonymous said…
the bullying policy may or may not be clear, but first you have to get the staff/principal to agree it IS bullying. We spent a year of middle school documenting another student who knocked books out of my son's hands, threatened to throw him over a staircase, and put his hands around his neck and said he would "choke him out". The school response was "mediation" and having the boys "talk it out" and "agree to get along". I repeatedly referred to the bullying policy and was told it was a "personal conflict" not bullying, although the other kid said the "conflict" was that he hated my kid and wanted to hurt him and make him cry. It wasn't until the other kid punched my kid in the head and knocked him down in the lunchroom that any concrete action was taken (a 2 day suspension), and even then there was no followup such as increased supervision (the other kid had a part time IA). We were at a loss about what else to do, and then the school year ended and they are now in different high schools.

so, sign me Good Luck Getting Help
Charlie Mas said…
Good Luck Getting Help tells a familiar story.

The rules don't work if they aren't followed. If the school staff won't see bullying for what it is and take the appropriate action, then what?

Perhaps this is a job for the Ombudsman? I would also definitely use the District's complaint process and refer the problem up to the Executive Director for the region.

The District's policy 3207 clearly defines bullying. The harassment that Good Luck Getting Help described meets the standard.

The point is real. We may not ever get all kids to not bully, but we can and we absolutely must get responsible adults to recognize it and respond to it.
Anonymous said…
This issue is very much on my mind, as one of my students was recently bullied. The bullies played a mean trick on her. Another student witnessed what happened and reported it, and the bullies were suspended. I believe the kids who bullied are remorseful, and have learned a valuable lesson. However, the parents are really upset that their child was bullied and are seriously considering putting her in another school.

What it makes me think about is what is enough as far as consequences for bullies? How do we do more to ensure that kids are safe from each other at school? Also, are we going to see more aggressive behavior with more and more BD kids being integrated into general classes? Another issue is that enormous class sizes, and kids getting lost in the crowds?

Anonymous said…
The plan defines bullying well. But the problem is summed up in the last part:

"The Superintendent shall appoint a compliance officer as the primary district contact to receive copies of all formal and informal complaints and ensure policy implementation. The name and contact information for the compliance officer will be communicated throughout the district.
The Superintendent is authorized to develop procedures for this policy, as necessary.

I still don't know what the plan is. If we have a concrete plan of response, what is it? And why is it that no one including school personnel know what it is. If my principal is aware of a hard-copy plan, I'm not aware of it. Are we talking here only about family-initiated claims of bullying with the District? The principal? The teacher?

A fifth grader used to visit after school and he asked me why we gave the Seymour Kaplan award to a bully. When I asked about it later, the teacher of the bully said she convinced the team to pick that recipient because she thought having the honor of kindness might help him achieve it.

What do you make of that?

I would think legal would make a determination and outline a prescribed response rather than leave it up to principals and teachers to figure it out.

Anonymous said…
Sorrel said: "What it makes me think about is what is enough as far as consequences for bullies? How do we do more to ensure that kids are safe from each other at school? Also, are we going to see more aggressive behavior with more and more BD kids being integrated into general classes?"

Good questions -- particularly since the bullies are also children themselves. As the parent of a SPED kid who has been bullied, I don't mean to "let kids off" -- but bullies themselves need help in seeing themselves and other kids differently, in choosing different ways to manifest fear, aggression, and competitiveness, and in making friends (yes, sadly, sometimes kids bully to curry favor with other bullies -- to establish that they are cool enough that they can be popular even if they are mean).

Teachers, principals, and staff miss it for a number of reasons -- because they are "busy enough already" and don't want to 'see' it so they don't have to respond; because they are truly so unempathetic/socially challenged that they can't recognize it for what it is (in many cases, these adults were "mild" bullies themselves, and look back on their history of teasing, excluding kids, name-calling, clique-forming as a "natural" part of growing up); because they have been badly trained for how to deal with it (blaming the victim; trying to make the victim "work it out" with the aggressor; etc.) I have even seen one classroom where -- in my opinion -- the teacher was trying to curry favor with a "popular bully" -- in exchange for not having her (and her group) "turn" on the teacher and make the class unpleasant. I can simply come up with no other possible reason why this teacher blatantly ignored bad behavior and went out of his/her way to stay on the "bully's" good side. Kids, of course, do this often -- to avoid becoming victims themselves, but I hadn't expected to see it in a staff person.

And a huge issue comes when kids move from elementary to middle school, and the "culture" switches dramatically from adult culture to "kid culture" at the same time as friendship groups are breaking up and reforming, kids are under stress, bodies/emotions are changing, etc.

There is so much education that can be done here (and the workplaces of tomorrow will be SO much better if we actually DO it) -- but it is not susceptible to easy answers.

Finally, it would seem to me to go without saying that when the person at the top (principal, exec. director, superintendent, etc.) is him/herself a bully, there is little hope for change -- since the integrity of the entire system has been devalued. Awfully hard to come up with a coherent, principled stand on bullying with superiors whom you KNOW are at that very minute bullying your fellow staff members.

Anonymous said…
People don't often see themselves as bullies, Jan.

Also, I've never seen a teacher give in to a bully or purposely ignore it. I had an experience when I tried to manage it one way (and it was working) and another person got involved and changed the plan. That's why we need firm plans - just like the chain of command was supposed to work at Lowell - there should be a plan in place that doesn't rely on an individual interpretation of what bullying is and what to do about it.

I wish it all worked as perfectly as you want. I think seeing the problem through different eyes helps to understand its complexity.

You say there is so much we can do. Simplify it for me: what would some of those things be?

Anonymous said…
Great post, Jan.

To me,

"what is enough as far as consequences for bullies?"

This is the wrong question. I too have a sped kid who has been bullied. Sometimes other kids have gotten suspended. But really, this doesn't solve the problem. Kids are just learning social behavior, and they do make mistakes. The real issue is to create pro-social environments in the schools where all students are valued and included, where inclusion and social inclusion is something supported by the school. When that doesn't happen, our schools (especially middle schools) become bullying havens. Our bullying policy needs to include this and actually be implemented. And this has to be modeled and supported by teachers. When teachers and administrators fail to value all students they set the stage for bullying - even if they suspend a few here and there. Ensfield alluded to this when she mentioned that she wanted all schools to adopt PBS (positive behavior support), a systematic strategy for managing behavior based.

sped parent

PS. Ok n. Things you can do- 1)ask a popular student if he/she would mentor a marginalized student during recess 1 day a week. Make a big deal out of the job. Maybe others will want it too. 2) have 1 day a week be "mix it up" at lunch and pair off students who don't usuallly hang together. 3) create other pro-social, more structure buddying systems for free/choice periods during the day 4) have activities where students really learn about the lives and differences in your classroom. Note and celebrate the differences that they discover. (not sure the age of your students)

Maybe you do all that. Maybe it hasn't worked, do some sluething when it hasn't.
Jan said…
n -- I think you are absolutely correct that people don't see mean, overbearing, hurtful behavior that shames, frightens, ridicules, and/or belittles people as "bullying" Most people want to think of themselves as good folks -- even though the amount of meanness and bullying suggests that there is a perception/reality gap.

sped parent's suggestions are good ones -- but I also think that we would be shocked if we spent several hours watching commercial television (especially kids' sitcoms and dramas on disney and nickelodeon, but not exclusively) and just noted the number of unkind, hurtful comments (followed by laugh tracks), the number of times that bullying and meanness pass as acceptable behavior with no consequences, and no "judgment" by the show's directors, the number of times when exclusion or bullying is somehow "made all better" by victims who have exceptional abilities, looks, athletic talents, home support, etc. (never mind that black eye, little Felix -- you will knock 'em all dead with your dazzling cello performance and an invitation to Carnegie Hall) -- when in real life, kids are rarely able to avoid the harm of bullying in so facile a manner. And then move on to adult sit-coms and dramas -- it is all there too. We have a massive educational campaign to do to make progress on this issue.

We are hugely desensitized to the withering effects of meanness and bullying on the victims, and are encouraged to think of ourselves as witty, "with it," "cool" -- and altogether just "great" humans, notwithstanding mean, rude treatment of those less attractive, wealthy, or socially or emotionally adept. Think of the Rutgers situation -- even after the trial, it is STILL unclear to me whether Ravi really got how horrible his behavior was -- or whether he still somehow saw himself as the victim -- someone whose "harmless prank" had been massively misunderstood. At the end, his attorney was still quibbling about the difference between a "live feed" and a posted videotape. How is it that we have a culture where someone could get this so wrong? I think it is because you can just imagine it "told as a story" among the "guys" -- with everyone yukking it up, and laughing at the audacity and cleverness of the person who ran the camera feed.

And then -- when something really dreadful DOES happen, we all turn on the perpetrator and eviscerate them -- when a few days ago, they were the heroes of "funny hazing stories." I guess in some senses, I DO see Ravi as a victim -- of an adult culture that allowed him to get to the age of 18 with any possible idea that this kind of thing was acceptable, that this was just a "joke."

And -- it isn't just kids. Look at King and Geoghagan. Look at Potter's behavior, and MGJ's. Look at the overt nastiness of the political parties (and their aligned talking heads) to each other, the things that pass for "fair comment" on the cable channel talk shows. And the speakers are largely applauded for their meanness. Limbaugh's on air comments about the Georgetown law student were a classic, and particularly brazen example -- but he is certainly not alone. Kids quickly learn that those protected by power and wealth can get away with massive amounts of bullying and meanness -- AND that the ability to get away with it is, in itself, a sign of power and status.


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