School Bullying: Privacy vs. Protection

Where do we draw the line between a student’s right to confidentiality and a parent’s right – and responsibility – to protect their child?

Currently, at least eight states have laws that require schools to inform parents or caregivers if their child is being bullied or is bullying others. It’s a complicated issue and there are obvious concerns regarding privacy vs. protection when it comes to disclosing bullying. Compounding the problem, only 20-30% of students report being bullied to either parents or school officials.

These policies are now being challenged by civil rights and LGBT advocates, who point out that such regulations put students at risk by violating their right to privacy. LGBTQ students are particularly at risk, as they may avoid reporting bullying because they can’t risk the school telling their parents what is happening.

Ikaika Regidor, director of education and youth programs for GLSEN, a national organization focused on safe schools for LGBTQ students, says, “While it’s important for parents to be aware if their children are being bullied in school, it’s also imperative to remember that LGBTQ students may not be out to their family or may not have supportive families.”

In 2001, a Pennsylvania high school football player committed suicide when police officers threatened to tell his family he was gay. His family filed a successful wrongful death lawsuit and a federal court in Philadelphia ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits governments from inquiring into the sexual orientation of Americans.

New Jersey has some of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the country but they’re among those re-examining their policies. Currently, schools are automatically required to tell the parents of bullying victims the full details of the case. Instead, the Department of Education has proposed changing its anti-bullying regulations to require that schools “take into account the circumstances of the incident” when deciding what information to share with parents and how to communicate that information appropriately.

The Education Commission of the States says several states require school districts to create regulations for notifying parents of bullying but only a small number of them clearly outline those policies at the state level.

For example, individual school districts in New York are required to develop a code of conduct that addresses bullying and discrimination. The policy must outline the circumstances and procedures each district must follow when notifying parents of code violations.

Other states, like Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia and Wisconsin have statewide requirements for parental notification of bullying in place but the timing for that notification ranges from before the student is interviewed about a report of bullying (Louisiana) to within 48 hours after the investigation has been completed (Connecticut).

Other states that require schools to develop local policies on parental notification include Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Just last week, New York state unanimously passed “Jacobe’s Law” in the state Senate, named for then 12-year-old Jacobe Taras who took his own life after being bullied at school. The law’s strongest advocates are Jacobe’s parents Richard and Christine Taras. They knew Jacobe was struggling with a bully on the school bus but had no idea how dire the situation actually was. Jacobe had been taunted and harassed during school hours as well but neither the school nor Jacobe himself informed his parents.

“Jacobe was the kindest soul you could meet, with extremely good manners, empathy and people skills. For someone like that to decide to take his own life, it’s hard on so many levels. You feel like you didn’t protect them,” says his father.

“We had no idea of the extent or the seriousness of what was going on. My son didn’t tell me and the school didn’t pass along the information they had.”

The Taras’ feel the rural South Glens Falls School District failed in their duty to protect Jacobe. One year after his death, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the district in state Supreme Court. The case is pending and school officials have declined to comment. For now, officials in states like New Jersey have suggested that rather than automatically notifying parents, schools should consider bullying incidents on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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