School bullying prevention efforts falling short, state audit says

Photo from Flickr under Creative Commons license

Photo from Flickr under Creative Commons license

Responding to concerns that schools should do more to stop bullying, a new state audit found that most schools do not track whether their anti-bullying programs have made campuses any safer and that schools are inconsistent in how they record and resolve bullying incidents.

Oversight and guidance from the California Department of Education has been insufficient, the audit said, noting the department went four years without noticing that it was not monitoring schools to ensure they were addressing student complaints, as required by law. At the same time, funding has been cut for statewide surveys on student safety, making it more difficult to determine students’ experiences with bullying.

On the plus side, the audit, released Tuesday by State Auditor Elaine Howle, did find that the vast majority of California schools have anti-bullying programs in place and have provided staff training in how to prevent bullying, discrimination, harassment and intimidation.

Still, one advocate said the audit confirms that much remains to be done to reduce the high levels of bullying in California schools.

“The audit shows that passing laws isn’t enough – we need to implement them and ensure accountability at the district, county and statewide levels,” said Jesse Melgar, spokesman for Equality California, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. “Now, California schools and the Department of Education have an opportunity to use the audit’s findings to review, update and enhance their policies to better protect our youth and ensure student success.”

The California Department of Education disputed many of the audit’s finding, saying officials are committed to addressing bullying and keeping students safe.

“Although not mentioned in this report, California has made significant progress in addressing negative school behavior despite the impacts of ongoing budget cuts and staff reductions,” Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Zeiger said in an emailed statement. “Nevertheless, CDE acknowledges the auditor’s concerns and will continue our work to build and reinforce a positive school climate throughout the state. Our aim is to take both a top-down and bottom-up approach to the issue – engaging students to focus their time, attention, and energy on learning, while working with school districts to implement bullying prevention strategies at the state and local level.”

Bullying at school

Some 28 percent of seventh graders in California reported being harassed at school, and 22 percent of ninth-grade students reported that other students had spread rumors or lies about them online at least once over the previous 12-month period, according to a 2009-11 California Healthy Kids Survey, the largest statewide survey of student well being, cited in the audit. The report noted the link between bullying and several high-profile student suicides, including the 2010 suicide of Tehachapi 13-year-old Seth Walsh, a victim of anti-gay bullying.

“He was only one of many young people who decided it was easier to commit suicide than to go to school the next day,” said Karyl Ketchum, assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton, and co-chair of the School Compliance Task Force of the Orange County Equality Coalition, which monitors schools in Orange County for compliance with anti-bullying and discrimination laws.

“The local educational agencies are not following through with their requirements under the law and no one cares,” she said.


Schools can better evaluate the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs, a new state audit said. Photo from Stock Images

Auditors surveyed every school district, county office of education and charter school in the state – nearly 2,000 in total – and received responses from 1,394, with 80 percent saying they had adopted anti-bullying programs and policies. Some 55 percent said they did not formally evaluate the effectiveness of the programs.

While the state does not require staff training in preventing bullying, discrimination, harassment and intimidation, most of those surveyed provided such training.

In addition to the statewide survey, the auditors visited six schools in Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento, and those site visits raised concerns about whether schools were receiving sufficient guidance on how to document and resolve complaints. At the schools, auditors found that staff did not always document complaints, follow reporting requirements or record follow-ups on incidents.

Experts said that collecting accurate data was essential to ending what President Barack Obama called “the pain, agony, and loss caused by bullying in our schools and communities.”

“Most schools in the U.S. have no systematic ways of tracking reports, and in most situations, do not even follow their own policies or guidelines,” said Dorothy Espelage, co-chair of an American Educational Research Association task force on bullying that issued a 2013 report on the prevention of bullying in schools. “As bullying legislation is often ‘unfunded’ mandates, there are no research monies to even track compliance of school districts.”

State department criticized

The audit was critical of the Department of Education, beginning with the department’s failure to detect that its Office of Equal Opportunity was not collecting data from 2008-09 through 2011-12 through its federal monitoring program to ensure that school districts had set up bullying reporting procedures and anti-bullying practices. The department’s internal program to collect data was not updated to gather the bullying information until 2012, four school years after the state Safe Place to Learn Act mandated that the department provide oversight, the report noted. The explanations for the delay included receiving instructions not to update because of a lawsuit, the belief that a former superintendent had suspended the educational equity reviews, that staff were unavailable or assigned to other higher-priority tasks, and that an employee assigned to make the updates failed to do so, the report found.

The department was also chastised for failing to meet the 60-day legal requirement to resolve appeals in some cases, with 11 of the 18 appeals reviewed by the auditors running between one and 305 days late.

Source: "Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities: Research Report and Recommendations," from the American Educational Research Association.

Source: “Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities” from the American Educational Research Association.

The department neglected its leadership role, the report said, by failing to use its trove of data collected from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which asks children in four grade levels questions about school safety and connectedness, to guide improvements in practices and policy. “By failing to perform any analysis of the Kids Survey results, education is missing an opportunity to evaluate trends in students’ views on school climate, which could better inform both it and the Legislature on additional steps that could be taken to improve school safety in California,” the report stated. Because of a federal budget cut, California schools are no longer required to administer the survey every two years to be in compliance with the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.

Also criticized was the department’s website of bullying resources for schools, with auditors determining that the site was cluttered with 10-year-old research, a dead link, and little information on current issues such as online bullying or bullying related to being perceived as gay or lesbian. In its survey, the audit found that more than half of the school districts, charter schools and county offices of education were unaware that the department even had resources to assist them in complying with laws to protect students from harassment and discrimination.

Zeiger, the state official, disputed that audit’s contention that the department was not a leader in protecting students.

“Protecting student safety and guarding against discrimination are top priorities at the California Department of Education,” he said, “and the department has been a leader in the prevention of bullying and assisting schools, parents and students in safety issues.”

Complaint process faulted

The audit noted that schools are encouraged to use their own staff to resolve bullying complaints quickly, but that resolving complaints internally could lead to conflicts of interest. The audit cited two incidents in Sacramento City Unified School District where the administrator who was assigned to resolve a complaint of bullying, harassment, intimidation or discrimination was the same person named in the complaint for allegedly failing to take appropriate action to address the student incident. The audit did not provide details about the specific complaints.

Sacramento City will take immediate action to strengthen its anti-bullying efforts, said district spokesman Gabe Ross. He added that the district was the first in the area to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy and now has a full-time, grant-funded anti-bullying specialist at the district level.

“Our schools are certainly safer for kids than they were before we began this work two years ago,” Ross said.

Filed under: Discipline, Hot Topics, Reforms, Student Wellbeing

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15 Responses to “School bullying prevention efforts falling short, state audit says”

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  1. jan wolleson on Apr 23, 2015 at 1:29 pm04/23/2015 1:29 pm

    • 000

    In the fifth grade no child should cry and beg not to go to school…because of bullying. She’s been attacked in school, as well as on her way home, while walking. She has been threatened, with being “knocked out!”, “really hurt bad”. and she has been hurt at school, more than once! The school seems unconcerned, and does nothing. The district office, makes a lot of suggestions, but does nothing. Where do I go now for someone to help with this situation?

  2. Lost Mom on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:32 am08/30/2013 12:32 am

    • 000

    The school my daughter was going to was major bad on bullying still is as far as I know. I took my daughter out of the school she now is in private school. I wish I could do more I went to vice prince main prince teachers and even councilor. The councilor told my daughter it has nothing to do with her she cant do anything . I went to the administrator he told me unless my daughter gets punched in the face nothing can be done. My daughter even was pushed down stairs and still nothing done . I am her mother and as a mom I want what is best for my daughter . How can I help to change bullying at school. I just want my daughter to have a normal productive life these kids are our future. I do believe if nothing changes the future for our kids will be over before it even starts.

  3. Tanniayc on Aug 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm08/26/2013 6:15 pm

    • 000

    There has been a problem with bullying at my kids school. I personally have tried to bring some type of club or some sort or prevention to help my kids and other kids in the school. I was told by the Principal that I wasn’t able to bring this to the school.

    So, after my son being physically bullied couple years ago and just last year he was mentally bullied and they school or district didn’t do anything about it.

    I have came together with 2 other parents to bring Awareness to Bullying on our own. We have became a Chapter under “Stand For The Silent” We are called Sacramento Stand For The Silent” we are going to do everything and anything in our power to bring Awareness in our school, neighborhood and our community. We as parents need to get involved in a positive way with our kids and let the kids know that they don’t have to stand alone anymore.

    We all need to Stand Together To Make A Difference!!

  4. Paul on Aug 26, 2013 at 8:26 am08/26/2013 8:26 am

    • 000

    I’m glad that the conflict-of-interest angle was pointed out. Even sincere school site administrators who want to take an aggressive stance against bullying — either in terms of campus-wide education or in terms of punishment of the perpetrators — are held back because their positions are not secure from one year to the next. A principal or vice-principal must emphasize public relations, i.e., keeping up appearances and avoiding controversy, if she doesn’t want to be shuffled off to a tough school or sidelined in a district office position (rather a paradox, in the latter case, since those positions offer the same pay but require so much less work than being attached to a school site!).

    Paul and Jay, having taught in elementary, middle and high schools, I’d like to add that there are pervasive forms of bullying not tied to any specific moment in the school day or to any specific place on the school campus. Examples include giggling, note-passing, covert use of nicknames, overt use of nicknames, refusal to work with, refusal to play with, cyber-bullying, and even parent complaints (‘my child against yours’). Rooting out these damaging behaviors takes deliberate, sincere, constant and concerted effort by the adults — and eventually the students — in a school community.

    Students respond to superficial anti-bullying campaigns by making fun of them.

    Student 1: [Answers incorrectly]
    Student 2: “You’re dumb!”
    Students 3, 4 and 5: [In unison] “But isn’t that BULLYING? [Pause] Ha ha ha…”

    Just as with issues like racism and sexual assault, we have to be careful that people realize that the problem is dead serious. I’ve watched primary-grades students, who at their age should be ebullient and full of life, close up in unwholesome environments. It’s Darwinian, and it’s the saddest thing in the world. I’ve often thought to myself, “If this were my child, I’d have to home-school.”


    • Gentsu Gen on Aug 27, 2013 at 9:11 am08/27/2013 9:11 am

      • 000

      “Refusal to play with”? Are you serious? Kids–as adults–should to be free to make their own choices about who to ‘play’ with. I know, for myself in grade school, I chose not to play with the bullies!

      • Paul on Aug 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm08/27/2013 11:57 pm

        • 000

        Gentsu Gen, you’re demonstrating the kind of misunderstanding that I was alluding to.

        Choosing to play with one’s friends is completely natural, but when children, acting as a group, and acting consistently (i.e., all the time), avoid playing with a particular classmate who is in some way different, that is bullying.

        The excluded child might: have a physical disability; have a cognitive disability; have a speech impairment; speak English with an accent; not speak English yet; have darker or lighter skin; be a member of a minority race in the classroom or school; not be able to afford brand-name clothing or school uniform pieces; have a non-traditional family (single mother, single father, two fathers, two mothers, incarcerated parent, deported parent, etc.); wear glasses; be an undocumented immigrant; be growing more slowly, or faster than, peers; not conform to gender roles; express gay, lesbian or bisexual interest (applies to older students); or exhibit any other kind of difference.

        When someone is systemically excluded, there is work to be done.

        • el on Aug 28, 2013 at 9:42 am08/28/2013 9:42 am

          • 000

          Thanks, Paul. Don’t forget being too good at schoolwork. Or being nice to the new kid of an opposite gender.

          I think we’ve made progress in that most administrators recognize it as a problem and there is a lot less tolerance than there once was. But it’s a difficult problem and it still goes on.

          • Paul on Aug 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm08/29/2013 9:52 pm

            • 000

            Excellent point, el. Being a good student can be cause for ostracism. This can happen in any context, but it’s particularly sad when it happens in ethnic minority groups, where excelling at school is sometimes associated with ‘selling out’ or ‘acting white’. It’s an insidious pattern. A former student wrote, in a note to me, that her friends thought it was “not cool to be smart”.

            • el on Aug 29, 2013 at 10:29 pm08/29/2013 10:29 pm

              • 000

              And this is a key point about peer effects – the difference between a school full of students who say, “Hey, you’re smart; I’d like to be your friend” and “You got an A and you think math is interesting… what a dweeb! No one likes you!” is something that hardly anyone talks about.

          • Lost Mom on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:39 am08/30/2013 12:39 am

            • 000

            I really think even though it has been brought to attention. There is still many schools and administrators that could careless. It just seems if it is not their child then they just want to push it aside.

    • el on Aug 27, 2013 at 11:31 am08/27/2013 11:31 am

      • 000

      Many good points. I think we’re a long way from solving bullying or even really knowing how to solve it. Building community and zero tolerance among the kids for bullying of other students seems to be key, such that peers stop bad behavior before it escalates.

  5. GloriaR on Aug 26, 2013 at 6:32 am08/26/2013 6:32 am

    • 000

    Teaching the youngest children tolerance and kindness may help to combat bullying
    The song “Be a Buddy, not a Bully” for children up to age 9 can be heard on utube:

  6. on Aug 26, 2013 at 6:29 am08/26/2013 6:29 am

    • -11-100

    @Paul Muench. Generally speaking bullying occurs in less supervised areas. Since each school is different it is difficult to point to a single place where bullying is more likely but parking lots, lunchrooms and bathrooms are all likely candidates.

  7. Paul Muench on Aug 26, 2013 at 4:42 am08/26/2013 4:42 am

    • -11-100

    Do we know when bullying is likely to happen? For example, in elementary school does bullying mostly happen at recess?


    • Lost Mom on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:36 am08/30/2013 12:36 am

      • -11-100

      my daughters being bullied did not even start until middle school. The middle school seems to always be the beginning. That is my opinion.

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