UnifiEd, a public education advocacy organization, is calling for the Hamilton County Department of Education to immediately comply with state law mandating an adequate bullying and harassment policy in public schools and an independent investigation into all HCDE policies and procedures related to bullying, said officials.
"We believe that clear action steps need to be taken to address these issues across our school system,” said Elizabeth Crews, executive director of UnifiEd. “The issue is not merely focused on Ooltewah High School but is indicative of a larger problem within the school system.”
UnifiEd called for the Hamilton County School Board and the school system to establish an anonymous reporting line that will allow reports to be filed without the fear of retribution. “It is past time for this communication link to be established and hopefully our school officials will take immediate action,” Said Ms. Crews.
Last year, after months of community input and engagement, UnifiEd released their Pact for Public Education outlining four community priorities for public schools. One of the community priorities was a call for increased transparency and accountability from the school system. UnifiEd believes bullying, harassment, and discrimination is a system-wide issue that needs to be immediately addressed to prevent issues similar to the recent alleged crimes committed against a student at Ooltewah High School, said officials.
The UnifiEd Student Voice Team, led by high school student organizers, has worked with over 100 students from 16 different schools in Hamilton County to create policy change within public schools. In December, the Student Voice Team identified bullying and harassment as one of the most pressing issues facing students today.
An analysis by UnifiEd’s Student Voice Team suggests that the current Hamilton County Department of Education policy 6.304 regarding Student Discrimination/Harassment/Hazing and Bullying/Intimidation does not comply with state law. Tennessee Code Annotated Section 49-6-4503 requires that every school district adopt a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyberbullying. The statute details 13 specific elements that are required to be a part of every such school district policy.
The Student Voice Team’s review of HCDE’s policy suggests that five of the 13 required provisions are missing or inadequate:
A procedure for anonymous reporting
A statement of the consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who engages in reprisal or retaliation against a person who reports an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber bullying
A description of the type of behavior expected from each student
A procedure for discouraging and reporting conduct aimed at defining a student in a sexual manner or conduct impugning the character of a student based on allegations of sexual promiscuity
A statement of the manner in which a school district shall respond after an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying is reported, investigated and confirmed
Akia Lewis, a student organizer at UnifiEd, says, “UnifiEd’s Student Voice Team has been working since last year to bring attention to the pressing issue of bullying and discrimination in schools. We know this is not an issue in one school or student group. We are dedicated and focused on making policy changes that will benefit all students in Hamilton County.”
Nick Wilkins, also a student organizer at UnifiEd, said, “I believe having the option to report an incident anonymously is essential to ensuring the safety of all students. The School Board needs to work with students to create a centralized method of reporting that empowers us to be honest about what’s going on in our schools and provide support for victims.”
While school administrators cannot base disciplinary action on anonymous reports, they are a useful in tracking and responding to problems associated with harassment, intimidation, and bullying, said officials.
Based on data required to be reported to the State Department of Education, the number of reports of bullying in Hamilton County schools increased from 345 in 2012-2013 to 412 in 2013-2014 – a 19.4 percent increase in one year. Reported bullying in Tennessee increased statewide by only 6.5 percent. The number of substantiated reports – where after an investigation, school officials confirmed that bullying occurred – increased in Hamilton County from 255 to 362, a 42 percent increase.
“If our school system and our school board cannot ensure a safe learning environment for every student in their care, we are failing our kids at the most fundamental level,” said Ms. Crews.
UnifiEd is calling for the School Board to comply with state law and asking HCDE to launch an independent investigation of all policies and procedures related to bullying. They recommend the anti-bullying policy be developed in “consultation with parents and guardians, school employees, volunteers, students, administrators and community representatives” as mandated by state law.
UnifiEd’s Student Voice Team is currently working with students across the county to create a policy draft they believe will best serve students and address the issue of increased bullying and harassment in public schools.