Bullying in schools

New research finds link between districts that voted Trump and racist bullying post-election

PHOTO: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Students living in areas that voted for President Trump faced more bullying after the 2016 election, according to new research released Wednesday.

The study offers some hard evidence that the post-election months were a more fraught time in many schools — backing up the stories of individual teachers and students. But the effects were not spread evenly: In communities favoring Trump, reports of bullying were 18 percent higher than in communities that voted for Hillary Clinton, the study found. Reports of peers being teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity were 9 percent higher in those places.

Overall, 17 percent of students in areas that voted for Clinton reported being bullied, compared to 20 percent of students in areas that voted for Trump.

“We found differences in teasing and bullying rates that were linked to voting preferences, which we didn’t see prior to the 2016 presidential election,” said Francis Huang, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, who conducted the study with University of Virginia professor Dewey Cornell.

Huang and Cornell examined the survey responses of more than 155,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students across Virginia’s 132 school districts. Students were asked if they had been bullied at school and if they had observed harassment of others, including students being targeted due to their race or ethnicity. The data was collected in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

Their conclusions are limited for a few reasons. The surveys don’t say the race or ethnicity of the students being bullied, making it impossible to know how closely the incidents were tied to the derogatory language now-President Trump and his supporters used during the campaign about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, for instance.

And the data, published in the peer-reviewed Educational Researcher, only shows a link between bullying and voting patterns — it doesn’t prove cause and effect.

“Our data show there could be a relationship, but more research is needed to know that,” Huang said. “But what we can say is that bullying continues to be a problem in schools that’s only increased in the eyes of these students.”

There still isn’t much research yet to confirm the depth of such a “Trump effect,” said Deborah Temkin, director of education research for the nonpartisan Child Trends. She previously oversaw federal efforts to combat bullying in the Obama administration.

“This is a really complicated thing to disentangle,” Temkin said. “There can be so many factors into why bullying is happening and without a hyper-controlled study — which is hard to do when you may or may not have a presidential election in the mix — it’s hard to show causation.”

Virginia has taken steps to combat bullying in schools, before and after the election. A law implemented in 2017 requires principals to notify the parent of any student involved in bullying of the status of any investigation within five school days.

While schools do submit harassment data to the federal government every couple of years, the nature of such incidents isn’t made clear in those reports. Moreover, there is no uniform collection of hate crimes or bias incidents in schools by any federal agency, making it a challenge to understand how often students are targeted because of their identity.

A national data set released last year showed that bullying rates held steady in 2017, Temkin noted, adding that researchers should be cautious about assigning blame for any uptick fully to Trump or political rhetoric.

Indeed, Huang and Cornell found that bullying was present throughout the state of Virginia — a battleground state that Clinton won by 5 points.

School officials have publicly expressed concern in recent years about how President Trump’s language and behavior, including his reliance on false claims, may be affecting students’ outlook on what is socially acceptable. That presents new challenges for teachers pushed to address it.

“It is harder to have students behave respectfully toward one another when the nation’s chief role model consistently does the opposite,” Richard Stopol, the president of NYC Outward Bound Schools, wrote last week in the New York Daily News. “Through words and actions, he is profoundly affecting how teachers see their role and influencing both how and what they teach. With those words and actions, he is posing immense challenges that educators across the country are having to reckon with.”

Temkin said the research should push teachers and school administrators to acknowledge that what’s happening in politics doesn’t stay at home with their students.

“We have to be thinking of how the actions of adults transfer onto the behavior of kids as kids are always looking at how adults are acting toward others,” Temkin said. “So yes, more research is needed to see how deep these relationships go, and from what we see here in the study is a sustained need for bullying prevention in schools.”

Back to school

Kirby High students to return to school Monday four months after rats moved in

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High School students and staff reunited before a scheduled return to the Memphis building Monday. The school had been closed because of rats and about 800 students were scattered to three locations as Shelby County Schools worked on the building.

Update on Jan. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to include the stipend amount for staff, more specific enrollment numbers, and a breakdown of renovation costs.

Walking around the building she once thought was a lost cause for the first time in four months, Kirby High School senior Princess Jones was impressed.

A rat invasion in the fall prompted Memphis school leaders to spend more than $3 million on renovations, and community members got their first look Friday at the improvements, which included a host of upgrades.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
While students were scattered to three locations, Shelby County Schools got new furniture for classrooms and the library shown here.

“Y’all, look at my chair!” Jones exclaimed inside her former English classroom as she ran to the corner desk she used to sit in. Instead of individual desks, there are now new tables made to fit together in groups.

Other improvements included a student lounge, five new computer labs, new laptops for teachers, a few cameras that will allow teachers to livestream and record lessons, new lighting, and paint.

The hallways were adorned with balloons in the school colors of white and blue Friday afternoon, and nearly every Shelby County Schools representative sported a T-shirt with the school’s rallying cry that sought to boost morale during a crisis that displaced about 800 students: “Kirby Strong.”

The welcome ceremony came three days before students will return to the Memphis high school after being scattered to three nearby locations while district staff and contractors worked to clear the building of pests and upgrade the school beyond the immediate needs. About $750,000, or 22 percent, of the $3.3 million the district spent on renovations was directly prompted by the rats.

“We wanted to ensure that when the students and the teachers came back to Kirby High School that we were giving them something to look forward to… to a certain extent to make up for the difficult time they went through,” said Natalia Powers, the district’s chief of communications.

Kevin Woods, the school board member whose region includes Kirby High, said he was happy with the result.

“The objective all along was that the Kirby family would return to a school better than they left,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High senior Princess Jones explores a new tool in the school’s library that responds to 3-D glasses.

The district demolished the adjacent greenhouse that officials say was the main rat attraction. When staff disturbed an old compost pile during some scheduled maintenance, about 80 rats fled into the building, officials said at the time. Since then, workers have removed rats that died behind the school walls and ceilings that had stunk up the hallways, and they sealed any crevices the rodents might be able to slip through. Crews stopped work for several days after an inspection to see if any rats would resurface once work quieted down.

To prevent rodents from entering other Memphis schools, Powers said the district hired six maintenance staff members devoted to pest control and bolstered contracts with existing businesses to be more proactive. The district did provide the total cost of those additions.

Students missed nine days of school altogether after the problem was discovered, partially resolved, and then resurfaced. Kirby High is one of 166 schools across the state that scored the lowest on state tests, so making up for lost instructional time was especially urgent. Shelby County Schools sought special consideration from the state to accommodate for the upheaval, but were denied, district officials said.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High School Principal Steevon Hunter

Principal Steevon Hunter said increasing opportunities for academic support after school, Saturday school, and a tutoring program with University of Memphis helped students progress while away from their normal building.

“We really tried to keep it as normal as possible,” Hunter told reporters Friday.

Hunter said the school retained all of its teachers — in part thanks to $1,000 stipend for all employees. Still, the move took a toll on staff. Sheretha Wilkins, a special education teacher who has been at Kirby High for 10 years, characterized the experience in one word: tiring.

“You never knew moving would take so much out of you,” she said. “I’m just happy to be home.”

Before relocating, students received assignments online through district-issued laptops. As a result, students will keep those computers, making the high school one of few in the district with a laptop for every student to use at home.

Student enrollment initially dipped when students and teachers relocated to nearby schools, but as the situation stabilized, most came back, Hunter said. He’s expecting about 800 students Monday — about 100 fewer students compared to the beginning of the school year.

As Hunter and Powers went through the building Friday afternoon, Powers noted the new technology in the Kirby High classrooms is a foretaste of what new schools will look like in the district. Shelby County Schools is in the process of building two new schools and under a recent proposal could build as many as 10 others to consolidate 28 aging buildings.

“This is going to be the new way schools will look like,” Powers said. “This is the new norm.”

Below is a video from Shelby County Schools.

Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.