Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

March 15, 2013

Bullying/harassment can be hard to define

By Steve Woodhouse Editor
The Journal Express

---- — A concerned Knoxville High School parent called to try to find out where the line is drawn between “horseplay” among students and the level of bullying or harassment. KHS Principal Kevin Crawford says context and details are vital to the school’s ability to hold bullies accountable while protecting others.

The incident described to the Journal-Express involved the woman’s son, who has special needs. He apparently was playing with another special needs student, wrestling with each other around 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 5. At least two hours later, she said her son was minding his own business when another student came up behind him and choked him.

The choked student allegedly passed out. In the days since, the mother says he has had headaches. She is disappointed by the response of the school personnel when they found him unconscious.

When the mother’s story was relayed to Crawford, he said more details were provided than he received when the incident happened. Dealing with any incident of bullying or harassment is not easy, Crawford said, as there are no “black and white” situations.

Iowa’s anti-bullying laws discuss 18 specific areas. Most incidents he faces do not fit in any of them.

“Anytime you get a group of people together, there will be conflicts,” Crawford said. Harassment and bullying often require situations to be ongoing, according to the law. Isolated incidents do not fall under Iowa’s anti-bullying laws.

In most cases, according to Crawford, when the accused bully is approached by a staff member, he or she often claims to be unaware that the alleged victim does not like what they do. Most issues are resolved when the accused bullies become aware of the problem.

The mother who called said her son did not fight back, because he was afraid that the incident would then be defined as a fight. He would face consequences, just as the accused bully would.

Crawford said students are always allowed to defend themselves, to a point. Self-defense is allowed as long as the alleged victim does not escalate the incident and he or she becomes the aggressor.

“It doesn’t give them carte blanche to do whatever they want,” Crawford said.

When special needs students are involved, as in this example, special education laws then come into play, according to Crawford. No student is able to use his or her disability as a reason to misbehave, but behavioral disabilities are factored in when the school reacts to a situation.

“Having a disability does not make it okay for them to have something happen to them,” Crawford said.

Data collected by the district indicates that discipline issues are down, but Crawford has repeatedly said that staff can do nothing about a problem a student is having if staff does not know about the situation. Crawford said he and his staff look at solutions for problems. Major issues that KHS staff have dealt with rarely get repeated.

However, Crawford has noticed that the intensity of these situations has increased. Staff has always had to spend time dealing with a situation, or “talking the students down,” but lately, Crawford said, this is taking longer than it did even five years ago. Things can also intensify due to technology, as things can be said on social media that can fuel these conflicts.

“You don’t know what those reasons are,” Crawford said.

Staff works to try to prevent incidents, but they are not privy to all of the context of the situation between two students. It is also impossible to answer every “what if” situation, but the school has general guidelines to try to handle any situation.

Ongoing harassment can be hard to prove. These are often “he said, she said” situations. Oftentimes, if a student is truly dealing with an ongoing harassment issue, there will be no witnesses. Bullies are smart enough to do things when no one is looking.

Crawford encourages students to communicate with their parents about problems they may be facing, and to keep lines of communication open with school officials as well.