OLR Bill Analysis

sSB 1138

AN ACT CONCERNING THE STRENGTHENING OF SCHOOL BULLYING LAWS.

SUMMARY:

The bill expands the types of conduct that constitute school bullying and the situations where it can occur. It expressly identifies as bullying (1) any targeting of a student based on the student's actual or perceived “differentiating” characteristics, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical appearance and (2) actions taken through electronic communications or devices that otherwise qualify as bullying and are known collectively as “cyberbullying.

The bill (1) makes the school principal responsible for investigating or designating someone to investigate and address bullying whether it occurs in or out-of-school, if it affects the school or students in the school or school district and (2) requires all school employees, not just teachers and administrators, to report bullying incidents they see or that are reported to them to the principal or his or her designee.

It requires schools and school districts to adopt safe school climate plans, rather than policies, to address bullying. It adds to the requirements for such plans that they, among other things, (1) establish deadlines for reporting, investigating, and notifying parents and guardians about bullying incidents; (2) prohibit retaliation against those who report bullying; and (3) require school officials to notify police when they believe bullying conduct constitutes a crime.

The bill requires certified and noncertified employees working in public schools to receive annual training in how to identify, intervene, and prevent bullying among students. It also requires beginning teachers and teacher candidates to complete training on these topics. It grants immunity to school employees, students, parents, and others against damage claims arising from good faith reports of bullying and responses to bullying.

The bill requires

1. each school to carry out a biennial assessments of its school climate, using instruments disseminated by the State Department of Education (SDE);

2. school superintendents and principals to designate staff members and school committees to be responsible for school climate and responses to bullying in each school and district;

3. SDE to establish a statewide network to provide analysis of, and resources on, school bullying in the state; and

4. SDE to designate an annual day for public schools to promote awareness of the effects of bullying and student tolerance and respect for individual differences.

EFFECTIVE DATE: July 1, 2011

DEFINITIONS

Bullying

Under current law, bullying consists of overt acts by one or more students that are (1) directed at another student; (2) intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate; and (3) repeated more than once against any student during the school year.

The bill expands the definition to cover written, verbal, and electronic communications; physical acts; and gestures by a student or a group of students directed against another student that

1. causes the student physical or emotional harm or damages his or her property,

2. puts the student in reasonable fear of harm or property damage,

3. creates a hostile school environment for the student,

4. infringes on the student's rights at school, or

5. substantially disrupts the education process or a school's orderly operation.

The bill defines a hostile environment as one in which bullying among students is so severe or pervasive that it alters the school's climate.

Under the bill, to be considered bullying, communications must be repeated, but a single physical act or gesture is bullying if it has one or more of the above-listed effects. The bill specifies that the student against whom the activity is directed must be attending school in the same district as the students engaged in the activity.

Bullying Based on Differentiating Characteristics

In defining bullying, the bill explicitly includes conduct targeting a student's actual or perceived possession of, or association with others possessing or perceived as possessing, any differentiating characteristic based on race; color; religion; ancestry; national origin; gender; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; socioeconomic or academic status; physical appearance; or mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disability.

Cyberbullying

The bill expands bullying to include cyberbullying, which it defines as acts of bullying carried out through mobile electronic devices or other electronic communications, the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or cell phones.

Under the bill, an electronic communication is any transfer of signs, signals, writing, sound, pictures, data, or other intelligence wholly or partly by wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic, or photo-optical system. A mobile electronic device is any portable device that can send data between or among users. Examples include text messaging and paging devices, personal digital assistants, laptops, video gaming devices, digital video disk players, and digital cameras.

School Employees

The bill expands the responsibilities of school employees, other than teachers and school administrators, to respond to school bullying incidents. It also requires annual training for all school employees.

Under the bill, a school employee is anyone who is (1) employed by a local or regional board of education or works in a public school as a teacher, substitute teacher, school administrator, school superintendent, guidance counselor, psychologist, social worker, nurse, physician, school paraprofessional, or coach or (2) a school board contractor who provides services to or on behalf of students in a public school and whose duties involve regular student contact.

SCHOOL DISTRICT SAFE SCHOOL CLIMATE PLANS

Current law requires each local and regional board of education to develop and implement a policy to address bullying in its schools. The bill adds several required elements and rechristens the required policies as “safe school climate plans.

Prohibited Conduct

The bill requires district plans to prohibit bullying both in and outside of school. Schools must address bullying taking place (1) at a school-sponsored or school-related activity either on or off school grounds; (2) at a school bus stop; (3) on a school bus or any other vehicle the school board owns, leases, or uses; or (4) through an electronic device the school board owns, leases, or uses. Schools must also address bullying that occurs outside these locations if: (1) it creates a hostile environment for a student at school, (2) infringes on a student's rights at school, or (3) substantially disrupts the education process or the school's orderly operation.

Under current law, school bullying policies may, but are not required to, address bullying outside of school if it has a direct, negative effect on a student's academic performance or safety at school.

Reports, Investigations, and Meeting with Parents

District plans must establish a timetable for filing reports of, investigating, and holding meetings with involved parents regarding, bullying incidents and notifying them of actions taken to prevent further incidents. It assigns the responsibility for receiving and investigating reports to a safe school climate specialist in the school, who must be either the school's principal or his or her designee (see below).

Under current law, school district policies must enable students to report bullying incidents anonymously to teachers and school administrators and to be notified every year of the process for making the reports. This bill requires plans to (1) enable students to make such reports to any school employee and (2) require students' parents and guardians, as well as the students themselves, to be notified every year of the reporting process. (The bill is unclear if it allows parents or guardians to also make anonymous reports. )

The bill requires a school employee who witnesses bullying or receives a report of bullying to notify either the school climate specialist or, if that person is not available, another school administrator, orally within one school day. The employee must follow up with a written report within two school days after providing oral notice. Under current law, the notice to the school administrator must be in writing and there is no deadline for sending the notice.

The bill requires the specialist, rather than any school administrator, to investigate, or supervise an investigation of, the report. The investigation must be completed within 10 school days after the specialist receives the written report. It also requires the specialist to review any anonymous reports.

As under current law, the school must (1) notify both the parents of a student who commits a verified act of bullying and those of the target of the activity and (2) invite them to a meeting. The bill requires that the notice occur within 48 hours after, and the invitation to the meeting within 10 days after, completing the investigation. (It is not clear if the 10-day deadline applies to the invitation to the meeting or holding the meeting. )

Under current law, the notice to parents must describe the school's response to the incident and the consequence for further bullying. The bill requires this information to also be included in the meeting invitation. At the meeting, the bill requires the school to describe to the parents the measures it is taking to ensure the student's (presumably the targeted student) safety and prevent further bullying.

Under current law, schools must hold at least one meeting with parents, but there is no deadline for doing so and no specified content for the meeting.

Other Plan Requirements

The bill also requires the district plan to:

1. prohibit retaliation or discrimination against those who report or help investigate bullying,

2. prohibit perpetuation or continued bullying through dissemination of hurtful or demeaning material about a student by other students (presumably students other than the bully), and

3. require a school principal or his or her designee to notify the police when they suspect that an act of bullying constitutes a crime.

Records

In addition to existing requirements for each school to maintain a publicly available list of the number of verified bullying incidents, the bill requires district plans to establish procedures for schools to document and maintain records of bullying investigations. The bill continues to require schools to report annually to the SDE the number of verified bullying incidents at the school, but eliminates the proviso that it be done within available appropriations. The bill specifies that the reports are for the purposes of the statewide safe school climate resource network the bill establishes (see below).

Adoption, Posting, and Submission to SDE

The bill requires school boards to approve their plans by January 1, 2012 and submit them to SDE. It also requires school boards, within 30 calendar days after adopting their plans, to post them on the board's and each school's website.

Boards must also provide all school employees with a written or electronic copy of the plan at the start of each school year.

TRAINING REQUIREMENTS FOR TEACHERS AND OTHER SCHOOL EMPLOYEES

The bill requires all school employees, not just those who are certified, to complete annual training on identifying, preventing, and responding to school bullying. It also requires beginning teachers and those participating in teacher preparation programs to receive such training.

In-Service Training for Certified Employees

Under current law, school districts must offer their certified employees in-service training on the prevention of bullying. The bill expands the scope of this training to include identifying and responding to bullying.

Under current law, districts are not required to offer in-service training regarding bullying if they implement an evidence-based model approach to the problem. This bill preserves the existing exception, but only if the model approach is approved by SDE.

Training for Noncertified School Employees

The bill requires SDE, within available appropriations, to provide annual training to noncertified school employees. The training may include (1) developmentally appropriate methods to prevent and effectively intervene to stop bullying; (2) information about the relationship and interaction among bullies, targets, and witnesses; (3) research findings, including types of students who are at-risk of being bullied in school; (4) information about cyberbullying; or (5) Internet safety.

Required training can be presented in various ways, including in person via mentors, online, or through statewide workshops.

Training for Beginning Teachers

By law, teachers holding initial (first-level) certificates must complete a two-year Teacher Education and Mentoring (TEAM) program that requires them to complete five training modules, one of which deals with classroom management and climate. This bill requires that module to include training in preventing, identifying, and responding to school bullying.

Teacher Preparation Programs

The bill requires, rather than encourages, teacher candidates to complete a component on school violence, bullying, suicide prevention, and conflict resolution as part of their teacher preparation program.

IMMUNITY FOR SCHOOL EMPLOYEES AND OTHERS

School Employees

The bill gives school employees immunity against claims for damages or injuries caused when they report, investigate, or respond to bullying incidents. The employees must be acting within the scope of their employment as related to bullying among students and implementing the school district safe school climate plan. Immunity does not cover wanton, reckless, or malicious actions.

By law, school boards must already indemnify their teachers, school employees, and certain volunteers against financial loss and expense resulting from damage claims for actions taken in the course of their duties that are not wanton, reckless, or malicious. Indemnification, unlike immunity, still allows a claim to proceed.

Parents, Students, and Others

The bill also grants immunity for good faith reports of bullying incidents by parents, students, and others to a school employee. Immunity does not cover gross, reckless, wanton, or willful misconduct.

SCHOOL CLIMATE ASSESSMENTS

Every two years, starting July 1, 2012, the bill requires each school to assess its school climate using assessment instruments, including surveys, created by SDE in collaboration with the Connecticut Association of Schools. Under the bill, “school climate” encompasses the character of an entire school and the quality of the relationships among and between its students and adults.

Districts must collect and report the school assessments to SDE. SDE must use the assessments to monitor bullying prevention efforts over time, compare districts' efforts to statewide trends, and provide information to the statewide school climate resource center the bill establishes (see below).

Under current law, SDE had to report to the Education and Children's committees by February 1, 2010 on its school climate improvement and anti-bullying efforts and recommend additional activities and funding to enhance them. This bill makes the report biennial and adds a requirement that it include the number of verified acts of bullying in the state and an analysis of school district responses. It eliminates requirements that SDE analyze school districts' bullying policies and examine the relationship between bullying, school climate, and student outcomes.

SAFE SCHOOL CLIMATE COORDINATORS, SPECIALISTS, AND COMMITTEES

The bill establishes a hierarchy of people within schools and school districts and makes them responsible for developing and implementing the safe school climate plans, biennial school climate assessments, and the bill's reporting requirements.

Safe School Climate Coordinator

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the bill requires each school superintendent to appoint a safe school climate coordinator from existing school staff. The coordinator must

1. implement the safe school climate plan;

2. collaborate with safe school climate specialists (see below), the school board, and the school superintendent to prevent, identify, and respond to bullying in district schools;

3. in collaboration with the superintendent, provide data and information derived from the safe school climate assessments to SDE; and

4. meet with the school specialists at least twice during the school year to discuss bullying issues in the district and recommend changes in the district's plan.

Safe School Climate Specialist

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the bill requires each school principal to serve, or designate someone to serve, as the safe school climate specialist for the school. Specialists must (1) investigate bullying reports according to the district's safe school climate plan; (2) collect and maintain records of the school's bullying reports and investigations; and (3) be the primary person responsible for preventing, identifying, and responding to bullying reports in the school.

Safe School Climate Committee

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the bill requires each school to have at least one committee that is responsible for fostering a safe school climate and addressing school bullying. The committee must include at least one parent of a school student, appointed by the principal.

The committee must:

1. receive copies of completed bullying investigation reports;

2. identify and address bullying patterns;

3. review and amend school bullying policies;

4. review the district plan and make recommendations to the district coordinator based on issues at the school;

5. educate students, parents, and others about bullying;

6. collaborate with the district coordinator to collect data on bullying; and

7. perform other related duties as the principal determines.

The bill excludes parent members from the first two activities and from any other committee activities that may compromise student confidentiality.

STATEWIDE SAFE SCHOOL CLIMATE RESOURCE NETWORK

The bill requires SDE to consult with the State Education Resource Center, the Governor's Prevention Partnership, and the Commission on Children to establish a statewide safe school resource network for identifying, preventing, and educating people about school bullying in Connecticut. The network must (1) collect and analyze data on bullying provided through school district plans and school climate assessments, (2) provide training to noncertified school employees as required by the bill, and (3) provide safe school climate resource material to school boards.

SDE must establish the network within available appropriations and may seek state, municipal, and federal funds and accept private funds to administer the network.

ALLOWABLE BULLYING PREVENTION STRATEGIES

The bill adds student peer training, education, and support to the existing prevention and intervention strategies districts may already use to address bullying. It also eliminates school surveys and establishment of bullying prevention teams from these optional strategies.

SAFE SCHOOL CLIMATE AWARENESS DAY

The bill requires SDE to designate the first Wednesday in October annually as Safe School Climate Awareness Day. It requires suitable observances in all public schools to (1) increase public awareness of the effects of bullying, (2) encourage students to avoid hurtful names, and (3) promote tolerance and respect for differences.

BACKGROUND

Related Bill

sHB 6053, reported favorably by the Human Services Committee, makes acts of dating violence between students a form of school bullying.

COMMITTEE ACTION

Education Committee

Joint Favorable Substitute

Yea

30

Nay

0

(03/23/2011)