Toolkit Helps Families Deal With School Harassment

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(Host) A little over a year ago, Vermont adopted new laws on school harassment based on race, national origin, gender and other protected categories. Now a southern Vermont organization has created a how-to kit for families who may need the law to resolve a problem.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) ALANA is a Brattleboro-based non-profit dedicated to building equitable and inclusive communities in an ever-more diverse Vermont.

Curtiss Reed is the group’s executive director. He says ALANA averages about three calls a month concerning harassment in the schools.

(Reed) “We’re finding more people calling from Chittenden County, from Rutland County, from Washington County, Windsor – concerning harassment, and oftentimes at the end of a long and disagreeable relationship with the school. And so we’ve said, Well, let’s get the information out there so that parents can know ahead of time what to expect and what they should do and what their options are.”

(Keese) So the group created a harassment tool kit. Its centerpiece is a brochure titled “What should happen when your child reports harassment.”

Like other pieces in the kit, it can be downloaded from the ALANA Web site. The brochure includes the law itself, which was changed last year to define harassment more precisely. The new definition includes conduct that intimidates or offends anyone’s real or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

(Reed) “Prior to the legislation schools had the latitude of determining whether or not something was harassment. There’s some schools which – rather than call something harassment in the past – labeled it as ‘social aggression.'”

(Keese) The brochure includes a timeline that schools are obliged to follow. Within 24 hours of the report, school officials must meet with parents and explain their rights under the law. The school has five days to investigate the allegations and devise an action plan if they’re found valid.

ALANA recommends that parents of a child complaining of harassment bring along another adult when meeting with the school.

(Reed) “One, because parents want to defend their children. It’s a traumatic experience and it’s fairly easy for a parent to be disoriented or to walk away from the meeting and think, Gee, what happened there? It also has the unintended effect of having a witness, so that when an independent review comes in – if it goes that far – you have someone who can validate what was said, how it was said.”

(Keese) Reed says families have the right to an independent review if they’re not satisfied with how the situation was handled. There’s information about that on the Web site too.

He says the law doesn’t change the emotional impact of harassment or the difficulty of confronting it head-on.

(Reed) “But what it – well hopefully what it will do over time is bring corrective action to the school so that the next case, or the next couple of cases, they’re starting to do things properly. And that’s all we’re asking is that schools follow the law.”

(Keese) ALANA hopes to see more training so that teachers are better equipped to handle the problems of a changing culture.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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