— FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — While Alabama now has an anti-harassment law on the books, it still isn't clear if the Student Harassment Prevention Act of 2009 goes far enough to protect students from bullying.
In fact, the law doesn't use the word, "bullying" anywhere in writing.
Alabama is one of 49 states to enact anti-harassment laws for students. It's one of only two states that omits the "bully" terminology.
It requires school districts to adopt a policy in accordance with the act, adopt a school board-approved form to allow for victims to report harassment in writing, develop procedures to investigate reports and appropriately punish perpetrators in schools, and report the number of incidents to the State Department of Education on an annual basis.
But concerns have been raised about implementing the law in many of Alabama's 132 school districts.
The education watchdog group, Alabama School Connection, found mixed results when seeking evidence of the required policies and reporting forms. Eighty-eight of the school districts either posted their policy online or forwarded the policy to the Alabama School Connection upon request. As for the other one-third of school districts being in compliance, it remains unclear.
In four districts, policies were found to directly violate the law by allowing oral reporting of harassment as a viable means rather than requiring a written report on board-approved forms.
The group's executive director, Trisha Powell Crain, said the law was a good first step but there's a great deal of work to be done to ensure compliance.
"We're recommending to legislators adding the term "bullying" to the act," she said. "The children in Alabama schools certainly deserve to learn in an environment free from bullying and harassment."
Local school districts have complied with the law, and in many cases have taken it a step further by implementing anti-bullying programs.
Some school board members say a law on the books isn't enough and isn't effective until it's implemented.
In Muscle Shoals, the school board is expected to approve a new anti-bullying program to begin early in the school year.
It's a program called Rachel's Challenge and involves the entire school district from administration to teachers to students and families.
"The key to addressing bullying is for everyone to take ownership from the top down," said Muscle Shoals School Board President Pam Doyle. "You simply can't tell kids to 'settle it yourselves' because that entails too many interpretations."
Doyle said laws are only as good as its enforcement, and if policies aren't in place to enforce them, "We're not doing any good for our students."
Rachel's Challenge is a program targeting middle grades through high school and is a yearlong commitment.
That commitment to ensure a safe school atmosphere isn't lost on the private schools in the area.
St. Joseph Catholic School in Florence implemented a new program in January called Paws for Peace. Already, school officials say they're seeing a difference.
"We know counselors going into the classrooms and just talking to the kids about bullying doesn't work," said St. Joseph Principal Kelley Dewberry. "We made the commitment to this program because it covers every aspect of bullying, from training teachers thoroughly to simply teaching the difference in bullying and conflict."
She said one of the main responsibilities of school staff is to make sure children feel comfortable reporting bullying incidents.
"This program educates students on how to respond to bullying and head it off, and it's also geared toward empowering bystanders," she said. "There are weekly lessons for all grade levels starting out with appropriate student behavior like empathy and how to realize when they, themselves, are bullying."
Students even have anti-bullying homework, which often involves talking to their parents. It's a way to involve the whole family, thus providing support for students, officials said.
Dewberry said the school conducted a survey to discover what kind of bullying problem existed at St. Joseph and where bullying occurred.
She said the responses were eye opening.
"We learned it happened in bathrooms, in lines walking from point to point in the school and that it's not typically in that teacher-controlled classroom setting," she said. "So, we knew we needed the whole school in on this program and on the same page. We have our cafeteria staff to secretaries and teachers all together on this."
As for the changes in students, so far, Dewberry said there's a difference in how students speak to each other now and they seem more comfortable approaching teachers with their concerns. Confidentiality, is a big part of the program.
"We deal with both the bully and the one being bullied and then we follow up with them regularly so they know that it isn't forgotten and that we care enough to see that the behavior stops for good," she said.
The required written documentation is kept and regularly reviewed for follow-up.
Dewberry said after just one semester of the program, already students are understanding key factors, like the fact that one child's joking around may be received as a verbal assault by another child.
"Once there's a total understanding of the problem, it can be corrected and that's what this program has done for us," she said. "It's helped teach us as educators, as well as our students, what bullying is, what it does to others and how to leave it behind — for good."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/