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Bullying Laws Hit Roadblocks in Nine States

Five years after a fatal shooting spree at Colorado's Columbine High School shocked the nation, 17 states have enacted laws to combat bullying in their public schools. But costs of enforcement and the intrusion of sensitive issues like students' sexual orientation are causing other states to step back.

Ten state legislatures considered bullying bills this year, but only one measure passed--in Maryland--and the chances are "50-50" that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. will sign it, reports Finessa Ferrell, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some legislatures balk because rigorous requirements in bills to report bullying incidents are considered too costly or otherwise "burdensome" for school districts to implement, Ferrell says. Other state lawmakers, already struggling with gay marriage issues, don't want to consider sexual orientation in defining what constitutes bullying, Ferrell adds.

The Columbine incident in 1999, in which two students shot and killed 12 other students and a teacher before killing themselves, kicked off a rush by states to enact bullying laws, says Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

The Colorado Bullying Prevention Law, one of the first, requires school districts to include specific policies in their conduct and discipline codes concerning bullying prevention and education. "It is working well. We haven't had any major issues," says Gary Sibigtroth, Colorado assistant education commissioner.

Other states have adopted tougher measures. Connecticut's law, for example, requires schools to keep records of bullying incidents and make them available to the public.

Even without state laws, an unknown number of state agencies and local school districts have acted on their own. The Delaware Department of Education, for example, requires that bullying incidents on school grounds be reported to the department within five days.

Dounay acknowledges that "there really isn't any hard proof" that state bullying laws are effective. She suggests, however, that they at least "bring attention to an area that might otherwise be swept under the rug."

--Alan Dessoff

Close Ties With Police Can Help Alleviate Violence

In May, four teenagers were wounded by gunfire, one critically, at Baltimore (Md.) County's Randallstown High School as a charity basketball event was ending and students were filing out of the gymnasium.

Why doesn't this story garner the attention of Columbine? Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, wants to know.

"We have lost more children to school-related deaths this year than during the last six, seven years, yet it is hardly a blip on anyone's radar screen because there has not been a mass death casualty event such as Columbine or Peducah, Ky.," says Lavarello. "Each year that goes by we become more and more complacent, until the next tragedy. Then we seem to find additional dollars and call the bill something in honor of the dead child's name."

School-associated violent deaths jumped to 46 this school year as of early-June, according to National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based consulting firm. But many agencies are reassigning their school-based officer back to the street, Lavarello says. "How can a move like this not affect the safety of teachers and students?"

Personnel do get cut before hardware such as security cameras and fences. But the most important security measure to keep in place, Lavarello says, is the climate of trust between students and adults. Whether it is an officer, teacher or administrator, children must feel comfortable approaching adults with their concerns.

"In most school violence cases students knew what was about to take place, yet failed to tell an adult," Lavarello says. "That is why mentoring is so incredibly important, and one of the main roles of a school resource officer."

If your school is among those forced to cut campus police departments, it is crucial to maintain a close relationship with local law enforcement and make sure its response time to an emergency is adequate.

"Every school should have a crisis response team approach and all principals should practice lockdowns and evacuations at least four times a year," Lavarello says. Law enforcement, fire officials and local emergency management professionals should be invited.

--Nicole Rivard

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