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.
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.
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.