Bullying: District 518 officials talk prevention, punishment
“Perhaps we can all take a look at the anti-bullying policy and see whether there’s anything that you should do to make it more robust."
WORTHINGTON — After a concerned parent spoke with District 518 Board of Education member Adam Blume, the board member raised concerns about bullying during the district's March meeting, prompting a discussion about bullying, social media and how the school addresses those issues.
“I’m hearing things I don’t like to hear,” Blume said during the meeting. “And I’m just like, 'How bad of a problem is it?'”
Later, Blume said he’d spoken to a couple of parents and some high school students about the issue, and while he didn’t get terrible responses, they weren’t positive either. He spoke with school administration as well, and said after that he felt Worthington High School was doing a pretty good job of trying to stop negative behaviors.
Little information is publicly available regarding the incident in question due to student privacy requirements, but at least one parent said it was a bullying issue, and a student apparently left District 518, Blume said.
During the school board meeting, Superintendent John Landgaard said the term “bullying” is used very loosely and includes a very wide range of behavior.
“In a lot of cases, parents get frustrated, but they never talk to the school administrator,” he added. “They never talked to the teacher, they don’t bring it to us.”
Landgaard emphasized the importance of bringing issues to the school’s attention so they can be addressed, and noted that often, problem behaviors start outside the school or on social media.
“We’ll do something if we know about it,” he said. “And yes, there’s consequences involved, and we turn it over to the police to deal with it. But we can’t deal with it if we don’t know about it.”
“Perhaps we can all take a look at the anti-bullying policy, and see whether there’s anything that you should do to make it more robust,” suggested Erin Schutte Wadzinski, school board member.
“My job as a school board member is not just to sit there and vote yes or no," Blume said, stating after the meeting that, "Our No. 1 priority is education, and kids getting an education."
Director of Instruction Josh Noble said a number of families have enrolled students in District 518 because they have been bullied in smaller schools as well, and that enrollment goes both ways in those cases.
Typically, the school investigates bullying by interviewing the students and parents involved, Noble said. It can be difficult to get evidence of bullying that occurs on social media, and it can also be difficult for students to disengage from social media, too.
He emphasized the importance of open communication between parents and kids about what’s really happening on social media. Parents need to ask questions and stay engaged in their students’ lives, including their online lives.
Noble said the school’s investigations seek to uncover the reasons for a conflict between students, and then bring people together in person in order to address them.
“A lot of times, that works,” he said.
The idea is to help students and parents work through their issues and improve their lines of communication, getting to the heart of the problem.
“I don’t think parents communicate enough. The more we are willing to communicate with each other, the more chance we have to come to a healthy resolution,” Noble explained.
District 518 has a number of bullying prevention measures in place, including social-emotional curriculums in every building to help students work on social skills, learn how to treat others and handle conflict in appropriate ways, such as the “Character Strong” material.
Learning how to converse and both agree and disagree with others in an appropriate way are important skills for students, long past high school age, Noble added.
He does not believe bullying behaviors have increased, but that people have simply become more aware of it.
Noble also pointed out that when handled well, social media offers a number of benefits for kids, who can find legitimate long-term friendships they might not have had otherwise, build social networks or collaborate to figure out how to learn better together, as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bullying is addressed in District 518 school handbooks. For example, Worthington High School’s states that “Bullying is conduct that interferes with a student’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to educate students in a safe environment. Worthington Public Schools will investigate, respond, remediate, and discipline those acts of bullying that affect the environment of the school.”
The school’s definition of bullying does explicitly include written and verbal expressions as well as physical acts. Cyber bullying is explicitly called out as “unacceptable.”
And consequences for bullying can include everything from a conference or a one-day in-school suspension to expulsion, after multiple offenses.
Noble also recognized how difficult it can be when problems between students aren’t fixed quickly or easily.
“When a child is in pain, the parent has a right to be frustrated,” he said.