Connecticut can’t afford to lose more children to bullying

When students come to school worried about bullying, they can’t learn. That’s why we strongly support Senate Bill 1138, a comprehensive “safe school climate” bill before the Connecticut General Assembly.

One in four Connecticut high school students – and 35 percent of the state’s 9th graders – were bullied or harassed on school property in the past year. Elementary and middle school children also experience bullying at high rates. More than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied in one year.

According to the Connecticut School Health Survey, high school students who report being bullied are more likely to get less sleep, miss school because they feel unsafe, have property stolen at school, carry a weapon to school, experience dating violence, be depressed or attempt suicide.

Two recent forums – led by the Connecticut Commission on Children in Hartford and Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk – revealed the personal impact of bullying. Several students and teachers described how targeted insults, repetitive taunting and social isolation escalated to physical violence, resulting in psychological harm, depression and lifelong scars. Students subjected to cyberbullying said that it harmed their grades, attitudes about school, health and self-image.

The wake-up call in other states to enact comprehensive legislation last year was a series of suicides by students who were targets of bullying. Connecticut is not immune to such tragedies. The suicide of a Meriden student prompted the initial state bullying law in 2002. He killed himself after being pushed, hit, choked, kicked, made fun of, and seeing his belongings stolen. Testifying this year in support of S.B. 1138 was the mother of a Brookfield girl who took her life after her “friends” tormented her in person and online via instant messages and photos.

Bullying is also associated with an increased risk of school shootings. According to a 2002 study by the U.S. Secret Service, nearly three-quarters of school shooting attackers in the U.S. felt bullied, threatened, attacked, injured or persecuted prior to the shooting incident. Connecticut narrowly averted such an attack in 2007. A Newington High School student was convicted after gathering an arsenal of weapons and planning to attack a list of students that he delineated by ethnicity.

S.B. 1138 seeks to prevent similar tragedies by encouraging preventive investments in safe school climate and requiring a rapid response to bullying incidents. At the Commission on Children’s bullying forum, more than 500 people heard Kevin Jennings of the U.S. Department of Education tell us that every school should: (1) have a clear policy against bullying behaviors, (2) train all staff who interact with students, (3) ensure that all staff members take immediate action when bullying is observed, and (4) gather data to assess bullying. S.B. 1138 takes all of these steps.

Under the legislation, bullying outside of the school setting – including cyberbullying – will be investigated if it creates a hostile environment at school for the victim or disrupts the school’s operation. Schools will revise and publish their anti-bullying plans and prevention strategies. Each school’s safe climate specialist and committee will be supported in their implementation of the plan by a district coordinator. All schools will participate in a biennial assessment of school climate, coordinated by the State Department of Education.

S.B. 1138 requires SDE to prepare a list of evidence-based models. Schools can use the list to select and implement strategies proven to reduce bullying and establish a safe school climate.

We consistently hear from schools that they need help in establishing those evidence-based practices. They need expert assistance, and they need funding. To address those needs, S.B. 1138 will establish a statewide safe school climate resource network that could seek federal and private funding in order to assist schools through training and support.

We commend the bill’s sponsors – including Sens. Martin Looney and Andrea Stillman and Reps. Andrew Fleischmann and Catherine Abercrombie – for their leadership on this important issue. We urge the legislature to pass the bill, Gov. Dannel Malloy to sign it, and schools to implement it with fidelity and haste. Connecticut cannot afford to lose any more students to bullying.

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