An Orange County school board tonight is expected to give final approval to a policy that would punish campus bullying as harshly as bringing a knife or a bottle of vodka to school--a policy which might be the first of its kind in the country.
The rule would add bullying to the list of offenses covered under the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's zero-tolerance policy. Students caught bullying could be transferred to other district campuses and referred to counseling.
Parents began clamoring for the policy last spring, after a student choked another boy at Corona del Mar High School, sending the boy to the hospital.
Last week's school shooting in San Diego County only emphasizes the need for anti-bullying policies, district officials said. Although the exact motive of the shooting is unclear, the student alleged to be the gunman, Charles "Andy" Williams, had been relentlessly bullied by his peers about his appearance.
In the 21,000-student Newport-Mesa district, the new anti-bullying policy will cover verbal abuse as well as physical abuse.
"It's a protection for youngsters," said school board member Serene Stokes, who represents the Corona del Mar area. "We felt this was something that was long overdue, and we've got to break the code of silence."
The new policy says that schools will not tolerate "any gestures, comments, threats or actions . . . which cause or threaten to cause . . . bodily harm of personal degradation."
Referring to another student as "a fag," for example, would be personal degradation, said Jaime Castellanos, the district's head of secondary education. On the other hand, telling a fellow student that you did not approve of his or her homosexuality would be allowed.
Stokes said the new policy will encourage students to come forward and report incidents. Even the choking incident went unreported until parents found out about it.
"A student was strangled for a homework pass," said parent Cyndy Borcoman. "My son witnessed it, and did nothing."
Borcoman said her son and a group of other boys watched in silent terror as one of their classmates put his hands around another boy's neck and squeezed until the boy lost consciousness.
Once her son finally told her, Borcoman urged him to tell the principal, as did several other parents of students who witnessed the incident.
"I was horrified," Borcoman said. "And I was horrified that my son would see something and not say anything. He was scared."
After parents and the injured
boy's mother complained, charges were eventually brought against the aggressor; he is now serving a 240-day sentence in juvenile hall. The injured boy has returned to school, but may still suffer medical consequences of his injuries.
Across the country, children's advocates have had a difficult time getting bullying--still seen in many ways as Johnny dunking Jane's pigtails in the inkwells--taken seriously. In recent years, grant money and awareness programs have taken aim at what are perceived as more urgent problems--drug use, for example, and teen pregnancy.
And late last year, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill that would have created a $150,000 grant program for schools to establish "bully prevention programs." Critics said bullies would be proud of the status, and Davis said school districts already have enough money to combat bullying.
The issue of bullying, however, is becoming central to students' concerns.
Last week, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the health philanthropy, released a study indicating that teasing and bullying have become a primary concern among teens--more of a concern than discrimination, violence, alcohol or drugs.
The survey of more than 1,200 parents and children, conducted in December and January, showed that 56% of children ages 8 to 11 and 60% of those 12 to 15 believe bullying and teasing is a "big problem."
Even Santana High School, where last week's shooting occurred, had used a $123,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department last year to study and combat what Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Monday called the "onerous culture of bullying."
James Morante, spokesman for the California School Boards Assn., said that more and more districts are asking about bullying policies. He and a spokesman with the National Campaign Against Youth Violence said it appears Newport-Mesa may be the first district in the nation to adopt such a tough policy on bullying.
District officials said adding bullying to the zero-tolerance policy is only the first step in what will become a campaign to eradicate bullying.
"I think it's a good step," Borcoman said. "It has to be enforced. . . . And the kids that bully, they need help too."