The state’s role in addressing bullying is limited. Should it be different?

When Delanie Marcotte, a fifth grade student at Pollard Elementary School in Plaistow, NH, went before her school board to ask them to do more to address bullying, she may not have intended to spark a state-wide conversation, but her impassioned advocacy has captured attention via social media. Delanie put a face and voice to an issue with which educators, families, students, and communities across New Hampshire are wrestling – how to create nurturing learning environments where all students feel safe, happy, and supported.

In a recent interview with WMUR, the New Hampshire Department of Education noted that, “The role of the state is limited in New Hampshire. It is local control. RSA 193-F, the bullying law as it’s known, puts the onus on local school districts and their policies.”

Indeed, legislation passed in recent years has made it more challenging for schools to work with families to address the underlying factors that contribute to bullying.

Bullying and Education

Bullying is a serious issue in education, with significant negative impacts on students who experience it. Students who are bullied are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, have issues with health, and have worse academic outcomes. Bullying is also often a manifestation of underlying issues related to student, school, and family social-emotional health, and as such, requires comprehensive strategies that consider the whole child and their learning environment. Overly-harsh policies that fail to consider the whole child, such as “zero tolerance”, often end up failing, with serious long-term negative consequences for students. Ensuring that state laws and policies support local efforts to foster strong social-emotional competencies, is a critical step toward reducing the incidence of bullying and creating safe and healthy schools.

Current Law in New Hampshire

RSA 193-F requires all school boards and boards of trustees of public schools, academies, and charter schools to adopt a written policy prohibiting bullying and cyberbullying. The policy must outline ways for students to report bullying, a process for notifying parents within 48 hours of the incident, ways that the school administration should handle the incident, and other information.

The law also requires all public schools, academies, and charter schools to provide training for educators, school staff, parents, and students on bullying and bullying prevention. The Department of Education is required to make evidence-based resources available to districts. Districts and charter schools are also required to report incidences of bullying every year to the Department, and the Department is required to help schools with recommendations for remedies to prevent violence and bullying.

Other Laws Related to Bullying in NH

RSA 193-F is not the only statue relevant to a discussion on bullying. Here are some additional laws enacted in recent years that impact efforts by schools to cultivate stronger, healthier cultures and practices:

In 2017, New Hampshire signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 43 – a law that impacts the ability of school districts to use surveys and questionnaires to better understand critical factors in students’ lives, such as social activity and family life (considered “non-academic factors”).

Importantly, research has shown how strong school-family connections that build on a shared understanding of students’ social and at-home experiences, can contribute to improved behavior at school (additional research and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are available here). SB 43 made it significantly more difficult for schools to hear from students about social and at-home experiences.

In 2017, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted down House Bill (HB) 597, a bill that would have altered the state’s education funding formula to provide more aid to communities with higher concentrations of students from low-income families.

There is a strong association between a community’s poverty rate and frequency at which children experience multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACE); children who experience multiple ACEs are more at-risk for decreased academic achievement. New Hampshire’s funding formula does not currently provide differentiated aid on the basis of concentration in terms of poverty.

In 2018, the NH legislature voted down an amendment to SB 357 that would have given local school boards the authority to determine whether or not to prohibit the possession of firearms in a safe school zone.

Policies related to firearms are directly tied to student safety. Delanie’s bullying experience involved a classmate threatening to shoot her with an AK-47. At present, school boards in New Hampshire cannot set such policies at the local level.

Statewide Initiatives

New Hampshire does not currently have a statewide strategy to reduce bullying and improve school climate. State law likewise may limit local efforts and the resources available to address bullying issues and their underlying causes, vary widely by municipality. Districts must also manage regulatory hurdles.

However, there are several initiatives underway to help improve student mental health, for example, that are proactive in addressing bullying.

The New Hampshire Office of Student Wellness (OSW) oversees grants in multiple communities all focused on student wellness. OSW supports approaches that consider the whole child, addressing seven key dimensions of wellness: emotional, personal, intellectual, physical, environmental, occupational, and social.

The state also established a Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health as part of the Department of Health and Human Services in 2016. The bureau oversees a range of projects, such as FAST Forward, that use a family-centered approach to improving the lives of children struggling with serious emotional disturbances.

There is also the Governor’s School Safety Preparedness Task Force, formed in 2018 as a vehicle to consider a more comprehensive and coordinated state effort to improve student safety.

More remains to be done. School environments that foster positive relationships and that feel safe, nurturing, and welcoming for all, are essential to encouraging student curiosity and learning.

Your voices and experiences matter. We invite you to share with us:

  • What is your experience with bullying?
  • What are the success stories you wish more people knew about, where schools and families are working together to create strong, healthy cultures?
  • What are the challenges you see?
  • And what do you wish the state was doing to help?

As we gather your feedback, Reaching Higher will work to elevate resources, convene stakeholders, and identify potential ways forward.