The St. Paul School Board on Tuesday began tackling the issue of student bullying, a topic board members have wanted to address in light of the national attention on bullying in recent months.
The board met and discussed in committee with no formal action to take, but they plan several further discussions on the issue.
District leaders believe St. Paul is doing a good job of addressing bullying. Their meeting's purpose is to spotlight the issue. The St. Paul school board has mostly spent this year discussing and enacting a new strategic plan and budget for the district.
The district's work isn't done, board member Anne Carroll said.
"Cultural change takes time, and I think all of us — staff, board members, everyone — is interested in accelerating that cultural shift," Carroll said.
Carroll is worried too many adults still consider bullying a normal part of life and no big deal, despite research that links bullying and poor performance in school. She hopes that further discussion will change that.
Board members heard from staff about efforts already underway in St. Paul, but they also listed issues and questions they'd like addressed in the future.
One of those issues is cyberbullying, and a relatively new challenge for schools nationally. Researchers note that the tactics of cyberbullying differ from traditional bullying because they can be performed anonymously and at all hours of the day — there's no escaping it once school's over.
District officials acknowledge they've even been hesitant to start a Facebook page for St. Paul Public Schools because they're not sure they can guarantee posts wouldn't somehow be used within an act of bullying.
How district policy will change is still unclear.
"Right now, I think we're fairly comfortable with our policy; we think we have a good, inclusive policy in place," said Suzanne Kelly, St. Paul school district chief of staff.
The district doesn't have a specific bullying policy, but rather relies on a harassment policy. State law requires districts to have both harassment and bullying policies, but doesn't indicate whether or not those policies must be separate.
An MPR News investigation this spring found most districts in Minnesota separate those policies. St. Paul is one of15 districts that uses only the harassment policy.
Judy Kuczynski heads a group called Bully Police, which monitors state bullying laws across the nation. She argues bullying and harassment should be separated because one is often confused for the other.
"Unless it's differentiated; unless there is some specific allowances made — it's defined by itself, and there are specific sanctions that go with it — bullying will live, will thrive, despite any harassment policy you have," she said.
By covering harassment and bullying in one policy, the district had only intended to cut down on the total number of policies it developed. Also, bullying is defined in the student handbook, which is more likely to be read than district policies, Kelly said.
Still, she is hopeful that the upcoming discussions will be able to direct the St. Paul school district to define a policy.
"As long as there are instances of bullying; as long as there's one child who feels uncomfortable going to school because of a bullying situation, then we're not doing the best job that we could."