Gainesville and Hall County school officials are firming up their anti-bullying policies as the result of revised laws approved by the state this year.
Georgia’s revised anti-bullying law is considered by child advocate organizations as one of the toughest in the U.S. The bill, approved by legislators during the summer, expanded the definition of bullying and how it occurs, including the use of technology.
Elfreda Lakey, assistant superintendent of human resources and operations for Gainesville City Schools, said an increase in cases of reported bullying across the state likely prompted lawmakers to take action. The bill was also sparked by the death of Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old DeKalb County boy who committed suicide last year after facing repeated anti-gay slurs from classmates.
“We have gotten very serious, and in my opinion, I think it’s necessary,” Lakey said. “Children need to understand they don’t have the right to bully anyone else and no one has the right to stand in the way of a child feeling safe.”
The Georgia Department of Education created an anti-bullying policy as a model for local school system, and districts have until Aug. 1 to put their policies in place.
In Gainesville, Lakey said the policy is based on the state model and is “very strict.” The policy includes age-appropriate consequences from kindergarten to 12th grade, while current policies only deal with bullying in sixth through 12th grades.
A major requirement of the new law is that all school employees must report to school principals any time they suspect a student is a target for bullying. School officials must also notify parents when their child is involved in bullying, either as the victim or instigator.
The new law is an upgrade to 1999 bullying legislation, which required schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.
Just as the law did in 1999, the revised law also includes “three strikes,” said Jim Sargent, Hall County director of student services. After three offenses, students will face a tribunal and may be sent to an alternative school.
Both the Hall County and Gainesville systems are currently working with attorneys to finalize their policies.
“We’re developing our policy with as much input as possible. It’s not just a generic policy, it reflects Hall County as well,” Sargent said. “We want to make sure we have the most effective policy in place and that we evaluate it on a regular basis.”
Unlike the former statute, the new law also addresses and defines cyberbullying, in which technology is used to harass or embarrass.
To implement many of the new strategies, part of the law requires that people who work directly with children need to be trained on the policy, Lakey said.
Both Gainesville and Hall County systems are using the training program Compliance Direct, which is an online course.
The systems contracted with the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency for the training.
“The good thing about Compliance Direct is that it gives you a print out of all who have gone through the training. When I get the print out I can give it to the principals,” Lakey said.
Through the program, school employees are learning such things as how to report cases of bullying and the time frame for doing so, she added.
Sargent said he believes the success of the new law and policies will ultimately depend on the response.
“We have an enhanced definition of bullying, but the effectiveness is how much to heart everyone takes it, not just the school personnel but the families and the students themselves,” Sargent said. “A law is only effective if people obey.”