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Finding the Middle Ground on Bullying

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By Francisco M. Negrón, Jr., General Counsel/Associate Executive Director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA)

The one common thread from the many perspectives on school bullying is that advocates on all sides care deeply about kids. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is determined to protect students' Constitutional rights and their rights to an education in a safe school environment. But those rights hold an inherent tension that at times collides.

So how can we find a middle ground?

We're encouraged by a new set of guidelines that show ways public school students can safely share their views and engage in discussions about religious and political differences in environments that prohibit discrimination, bullying, and harassment.

NSBA recently worked with 16 other education, civil rights, and legal advocacy groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Education Project/First Amendment Center, to create this guidance for schools.

"Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools," is based on current laws but is not a legal document. Instead it is a policy guide rooted in the best interests of students. And because of that it can accomplish goals that many court rulings and policies from the federal Department of Education have struggled to reach.

The guide shows how to distinguish between speech that expresses an idea, including religious or political viewpoints that may be offensive to some students or teachers, and speech that is intended or likely to cause emotional or psychological harm to another student or group. "Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons quite another," the guide notes.

For instance, we encourage educators to teach students that disagreement about an idea is not necessarily a personal attack, and that the most effective response to an idea one disagrees with is often to express a contrary idea, not censorship. However, the students who express offensive ideas need to see others' reactions, and learn that offending their audience is often counterproductive. Regardless of opinions, public schools should encourage all students to communicate with others in a tactful, respectful manner.

We want to help educators turn instances of bullying into teachable moments that show students the difference between ideas and personal attacks. These instances require adults to talk to children about how these differ, why they matter, and how they affect real lives.

This is simple, because everyone can understand what a personal attack is and how it differs from the statement of a belief. But, it is also complex, because it requires effort to bring people together to learn about the value of discussing ideas in an environment that is non-threatening, in manner that is civil and appropriate. And, sometimes, even ideas themselves can be terribly nuanced, so the guide discusses how specific circumstances can change the balance and how educators must adapt lessons to the age and maturity of their students. With the right skills and training, any educator can teach these lessons.

This guide is a tool that will allow educators and schools not to simply outlaw certain conduct or speech or ideas, but to engage students about the importance of civil discourse, respect for the safety and rights of others, and teach the value of thoughtful discussion, particularly about very deeply held personal views and beliefs. These are the types of hands-on civics lessons that students remember and that mold our next generation into better citizens.

For all our students to reach their academic potential, public schools must provide a safe, caring environment that does not tolerate incidents of bullying, discrimination, or harassment. Public schools can be a shining example of a forum in which constitutional rights are respected and cherished, and where individual dignity and safety is guarded.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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