CHEYENNE — The key element in successfully changing a culture of harassment and bullying in a school district is buy-in from the adults in the room.
That was the takeaway from discussions with some of the groups that will work with Laramie County School District 1 in the coming months to help prevent future incidents like the one that occurred at McCormick Junior High School in March. Flyers were found at the school that read “it’s great to be straight it’s not OK to be gay,” “black lives only matter because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton” and “Join the KKK.” They were directed at members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club.
The district unveiled an action plan last Monday to address issues of harassment and bullying in the wake of the monthlong investigation spurred by the incident. Part of that plan will see LCSD1 bring in outside groups to facilitate training for staff and administrators on cultural proficiency, efforts to strengthen existing resources available to staff and students, and reinforcing the use of guidelines for discipline.
“Parts of the action plan address district policy and regulations, compliance by district employees, and (an) ongoing audit of that compliance by the district,” said Marguerite Herman, chairwoman of the LCSD1 Board of Trustees. “Others are focused on building a culture of safety, tolerance, respect and civility among students. Others are aimed at filling our district’s role as a member of the whole community to make Cheyenne a city of kindness and respect.”
Herman said rebuilding trust with the community is the ultimate outcome the district and board hope to achieve.
“The trust and family engagement that result will help strengthen connections to our schools and help us serve the students and staff of our district,” Herman said.
One of the groups LCSD1 has asked to help in this mission is the Western Education Equity Assistance Center, located at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The center is federally funded and provides training for school districts and other governmental agencies in how to promote equitable education access and opportunities.
A relationship between LCSD1 and that group was recommended by the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service as a way to help increase staff knowledge and proficiency in cultural issues.
Mike Marquez, the center’s associate director of policy and finance, said they work with groups that request their assistance. There is no set program or training they institute; instead, they work with each agency to develop a plan that fits their unique needs.
“It really depends, because we’re not an enforcement agency. We work with partnering with whoever the requesting partner is and customizing the services of what we can provide and what they need,” Marquez said. “Projects can extend for years and grow and grow and go from what might start as a Title IX issue and realize we may have race issues or issues with discrimination.”
Marquez said, in general, the success of any program the center helps create for a group will depend on the buy-in from those involved.
“Buy-in is important, resources are important, a willingness to change is important,” Marquez said. “And the first step for anybody is reaching out to us and taking that initial step to say, ‘We need some help.’”
Another step LCSD1 is taking is to ensure the district’s current anti-bullying program is being consistently implemented at McCormick.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is more than 40 years old and uses data-driven research to help change the climate in a school that accepts and encourages bullying, said Jan Urbanski, director of Safe and Humane Schools at Clemson University, the national home for the Olweus program.
Olweus uses its own trainers to help certify staff in a school district, and then, as a group, they team up to spread those skills out through the schools. Currently, LCSD1 is home to several trainers, including the state coordinator for the program, Urbanski said.
“(A culture change) is not something that happens in one year,” Urbanski said.
She said one of the key pieces for success is for the teachers and administrators to believe in the program and want to see it succeed. In her years helping implement the program, Urbanski said anecdotally the places it fails are where those responsible for putting the program into action don’t believe in it or don’t want it to succeed.
“Administration buy-in is critical. You have to achieve that,” Urbanski said. “The key decisions on policy and rules, those things can’t happen without an administration buying in. You also need to have the teacher buy-in. It can’t be owned by an administrator or by a guidance counselor. It has to be owned by everyone.”
In a brief summary of the report, LCSD1 found “some” instances of bullying, harassment and confrontation among students at McCormick over time. It also found McCormick staff members have not always followed district policy regarding reports of bullying, which states the building’s principal must launch an investigation into every report made.
LCSD1 also wants to look at what it refers to as its discipline matrices and reinforce their use across the district. The matrices are a range of disciplinary measures for various infractions that are adjustable for each incident teachers and administrators respond to.
Tracey Kinney, assistant superintendent of instruction, said LCSD1 started to develop its current system in the 2011-12 school year as a way of ensuring uniformity in discipline throughout each school and classroom.
Infractions are broken down into four tiers, with tier one being the least egregious. That could constitute a simple disruption, like throwing a paper ball while class is in session. It would most likely be handled in the classroom with various interventions, like loss of privileges or maybe a parent-teacher meeting, Kinney said.
But if those interventions don’t produce a result, the infraction could move up to tier two, which could necessitate something along the lines of a lunch detention.
Tiers three and four are reserved for severe issues, including bullying, and could result in punishments like in-school suspension or extended out-of-school suspension, depending on the act.
Each incident is handled as an individual case without a predetermined type and length of punishment, Kinney said. A student who hasn’t been disruptive or had discipline issues may have their disruptive act considered a tier one action.
But a student who has repeatedly been disruptive and hasn’t modified their behavior could have a similar disruptive act considered a tier two or three incident.
The district has declined requests for information on what, if any, disciplinary measures were implemented for the student or students responsible for the flyers at McCormick that prompted the investigation and the recently unveiled action plan.