Bullying spawns law, scrutiny and challenges for area schools

Bullying spawns law, scrutiny and challenges for area schools »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Schools in Kern County say they make every effort to respond to bullies. It's an issue drawing more attention than ever, and bullying may have even played a role in the recent shooting at Taft Union High School.

Schools must now meet a new state law, and local districts say they're looking at new strategies for campus security.

It's a problem that deeply worries mother Dawn Chaney.

"I want to know what's happening, and what's being done," she told Eyewitness News. "There's something wrong in our system at the very beginning level."

Chaney said her son was teased by students at American Elementary last year.

"He had been pushed, the kids were being mean to him, calling him names," she said. "Pretty soon he was being pushed, bottles being thrown at him from behind, and hit him on the head."

The mother reported that to the principal and said the administrator did a good job responding. But, several weeks ago, her son heard that two kids were fighting at school, and another student handed one of them a knife.

"He proceeded to try to attack with that knife the other child," she said.

Chaney said her son didn't see this firsthand, but he's scared all over again. And the mother is frustrated that she didn't get all the information she wanted.

"I need to know, because my child goes there," she said.

School officials said there's only so much information they're allowed to give parents.

"Because of student confidentiality, we're kind of restricted on how much we can actually say," Rosedale Union School District Superintendent Dr. John Mendiburu said. That's the district where Chaney's son attends school.

"There's only so much we are really obligated to say under the law," Mendiburu said. "To actually say what occurred with the student would be violating their confidentiality."

That's what other educators say.

"We have to honor not only the perpetrator, but the victim," Standard Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Kevin Silberberg explained. "Both have rights, they're innocent until proven guilty."

He added that notifying parents is not required by law.

"If you look at the (education) code and district policies, it's an option." Silberberg said. Though he said the school's goal is to diffuse a threat situation, and that only happens with a partnership with parents.

He also said in the investigation, administrators may talk to a number of students, and they may not call all of those parents.

Both administrators said they take immediate action to sort out what happened, and that's now more completely outlined under a new law, Assembly Bill 9.

"It's a complete process that now is in place, now that 'Seth's Law' has been passed," Daryl Thiesen explained. He's a prevention programs coordinator with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office. Seth Walsh was the Tehachapi teenager who committed suicide after he was reportedly bullied.

AB 9 became effective July 1 of last year.

The new law requires school districts to adopt a specific policy.

"This bill would require that policy adopted by the local educational agencies to prohibit discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying based on actual or perceived characteristics..." the law reads.

It orders schools to have a process to take immediate steps to intervene when it's safe, and to also have a process and timeline to investigate and resolve incidents, as well as a process for appeals.

"Beginning this school year, we have an anti-bullying manual that kind of outlines what are the steps the school needs to take," Mendiburu said.

And, Thiesen said districts are responding like that.

"What most schools are doing is impacting the issue by making sure that staff, parents and student are aware of, one, what the policy is, and, two, how to report that issue."

The new law also requires more tracking of bullying incidents.

"We have to report all incidents of discipline to the state,"  Mendiburu said.

But now they will also break that down into more specific categories.

"The bullying complaints, and that type of thing, are being implemented this year," he said. "In response to the AB 9 requirements."

He said the data will be reported to the California Department of Education.

The recent shooting in Taft reportedly involved the issue of bullying.

On Jan. 10, student Bryan Oliver allegedly brought a shotgun to school and targeted two students in his science class. Bowe Cleveland was seriously injured. Investigating officers said Oliver told them he went after his classmates because they "annoyed" and "bullied" him. School officials will not comment on whether that was reported or investigated.

But, schools Eyewitness News talked to say, even before AB 9, they investigated any bullying complaints immediately.

"When we find out it is, in fact, a bullying situation, we deal with it that day," Silberberg said in the Standard District.

That's the same in the Rosedale District.

"We do a full investigation, and we try to get the student to be assured that their reporting wasn't ignored or put to the back,"  Mendiburu said.

From the Superintendent of Schools Office, Thiesen said there is a process done by district administrators.

"They would investigate that report (of bullying) by both talking to the person who was the victim of the bully, and also find out if there were any witnesses, and talk to the person who was the reported bully," he said. They have to substantiate the report, and find out if it's credible.

If the incident is confirmed as bullying, the educators say discipline is decided on a case-by-case basis.

"School district policies are really going to determine the exact action," Thiesen said. "Whether that's a one-day suspension, whether that's a multiple-day suspension."

Or, a student can be expelled.

"Whether that be a permanent removal, whether it be a suspension, whether there would be another placement, that depends on the specific criteria," Mendiburu said. He added there are certain situations with "zero tolerance," and those would result in automatic expulsion.

As for allowing students back to the same school after a confirmed bullying incident, administrators say that is also considered case-by-case.

"In order for a child to return to school from an expulsion, there has to be certain criteria that's met, that's established by the school district," Mendiburu said. He said that could include counseling or going to special programs.

In the Standard District, Silberberg said each student has rights that must be considered.

"That child (the bullier) has educational rights," Silberberg said. "If they live in our district, and they fulfill either the suspension or the expulsion, they have the right to come back."

In the Taft incident, families say they have heard the student who fired the shotgun had a "hit list" last year. They've questioned why he was allowed back on the campus. No officials will confirm if there was, in fact, a hit list.

School officials say they learned a lot from the incident in Taft, when it comes to campus security.

"I think what we found in Taft as well, is the agency in charge was law enforcement," Silberberg said. The big Taft campus was immediately swarmed by police, Kern County deputies, Highway Patrol, and even FBI.

Silberberg said the situation underscores the need for cooperation and planning for school safety in partnership with law enforcement. His school board recently got a briefing from the sheriff's department, and they are looking at additional campus security. Both high-tech and simple techniques.

For example, Silberberg said they need an efficient way to let law enforcement know if locked down classrooms are OK. That doesn't have to be high-tech.

"It can be a green piece of paper," he said. A simple piece of green paper slipped under the door, or taped to a window.

In the Rosedale district, Mendiburu said they're making more frequent reviews of campus safety.

"We're going to be looking at this on a monthly basis," he said. "With monthly drills."

One more thing schools learned from the shooting in Taft, is how phone lines jammed up. Parents complained to Eyewitness News they didn't get notified, or couldn't get information on how to pick up their students. At the Standard district, Silberberg said they're using the latest social media to help reach families.

Silberberg said Twitter messages will be posted during emergencies.

"We've incorporated that into all of our websites, for the specific reason of keeping parents up to date," he said. The superintendent said messages will be updated minute-by-minute, and parents can go to the website for the information.

But, social media is adding to the problem of bullying, educators say.

"We're not experiencing any increase," Silberberg said. "But bullying has taken on a different personality in the past two years."

From the Superintendent of Schools office, Thiesen also said they're not seeing an increase in bullying on local campuses, "But what you see is like Facebook and texting," he said. That means bullies can be more anonymous, and reach a wider audience.

Schools are also using new tools to deal with bullying. One is what's called a "threat assessment protocol." It's a system for administrators to evaluate a threat. "Did that start with a plan?" Thiesen explains. "Did they have access to weapons?"

"Basically it's a flow chart," Silberberg explains. "If the threat is true? Or if the threat is not true? -- you take that action." he said. "We need a protocol so that we're not doing something different at one school versus another."

All the educators say prevention of bullying has been stressed, and will continue to be a focus.

"We believe there are some very effective model programs," Thiesen said. For the past nine years, some local schools have had "Safe School Ambassador" programs. That helps students in the fourth grade through 12th grade learn how to respond to bullying.

"We have Safe Schools Ambassadors currently on our two middle school campuses, and we're working on implementing those down to the elementary level," Mendiburu told Eyewitness News.

That means the program is not yet at the elementary school where Chaney's son is a student.

She's still worried and frustrated. "We need to speak out and figure out what we can do to help these kids," Chaney said. Her son is so scared he doesn't want to go to school.

"He sobs," she said. "Please don't make me go to go school."

This mom is convinced it's a fear of bullying and violence at school.

"I know it's not because of the work, it's just going to school and feeling like -- you know -- they're going to pick on me or make fun of me."

The mother wants more answers and more action.

Thiesen said parents with questions can go to the school board meeting. Those trustees make district policy.

Mendiburu agreed. "If a parent is unhappy, they always have a right to address the board."

As a superintendent, Mendiburu said he welcomes parent input, and an opportunity to respond. "Parents need to know that their schools are still a very safe environment for students," he said.

Bullying is a big concern, Thiesen said it happens most at the junior high and high school levels. He also says state surveys of students show anywhere from 13 to 20 percent of students report that they've been bullied. Schools are taking a new, and hard look at threats and security.

"I can tell you that safety has been elevated to the top," Silberberg says about their priorities. "We're doing an awful lot," he says. But they need to find a balance between campus security and still being a welcoming place. "Everyone is taking a big look at this type of thing," he said.

Mendiburu said the same.

"Students can't learn if they feel like they're not in a safe environment," he said. "And, I feel all of our schools, all of our schools here in Kern County, provide that safe environment."