A decade ago, Vermont lawmakers created a group to address bullying in schools.
The Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council consisted of state education officials, school administration and staff from the Vermont Human Rights Commission. It was intended to “review and coordinate school and statewide activities relating to the prevention of and response to harassment, hazing and bullying,” according to state law.
But for much of the past year, the council’s meetings have been spent wrangling over a set of existential questions: Is the group actually doing any good? And if not, should it continue to exist?
At a Sept. 26 meeting, Henri Sparks, the Burlington School District’s equity director and the advisory group’s chair, put it bluntly.
“I have serious concerns that we are not really, and have not really, done a whole lot to keep kids safe from hazing, harassment, bullying,” Sparks said. Those concerns, he said, were a “question and a comment that’s been going on for years with this group.”
The advisory council dates back to 2012, when lawmakers wrote the group into statute as part of a slate of miscellaneous changes to education laws.
In a press release announcing its inception, Vermont’s then-Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the goal was to “provide more resources and support to schools as they address issues of harassment, hazing, and/or bullying.”
“I am confident the advisory council will be able to support schools in this manner,” Vilaseca said.
A recurring question
By law, the advisory council must include representation from state groups of principals, superintendents, school boards and the teachers union, as well as a current student. The council is supposed to present an annual report to the state Board of Education and legislative committees on education.
But no students currently serve on the council, according to its website, and it’s not clear how many reports it has produced during its existence. VTDigger could locate only three readily available reports online.
Those reports note that the group provided input on a model school policy on hazing, harassment and bullying; helped make online resources more accessible; and facilitated anti-bullying training for bus drivers. All three of those reports note that the council “is making no formal legislative recommendations at this time.”
It’s not clear whether the group has made such formal recommendations elsewhere. But council members have repeatedly wondered whether they are doing enough to protect children.
“We need this paradigm shift towards students and families,” Curtiss Reed Jr., a council member and equity consultant, said at the group’s Sept. 26 meeting. “Right now the entrenched interests really focus on school administrators and the educational establishment.”
“This is not a subject that’s new to the council,” Reed added, but comes up “at least once a year for — how long have we been meeting, for a decade now?”
Other members at the meeting discussed how the group should change — and even whether it should be disbanded.
“We have been saying for a couple of years now that this council does nothing, that something has to change,” said Amanda Garcés, an official at the Human Rights Commission who sits on the council.
“If this group is to continue, we have to really figure out amongst ourselves — how do we start to make recommendations?” said Sparks, the group’s chair. “Because we can’t say a lot of recommendations have been made that weren’t followed. We haven’t given a whole lot.”
Neither Sparks nor Reed could be reached for comment. Garcés declined to comment.
‘We owe our students better’
In September, Garcés shared a draft of a letter that she had written with the council and asked for feedback.
That letter was intended to create a formal record of the group’s shortcomings, Garcés said at the meeting, as well as possible solutions: “Some of the problems with what we're seeing in the council, and some of the background of what we're supposed to do.”
“In its ten years of operation, the council has done little to mitigate bullying, hazing and harassment in schools,” the letter reads, adding, “In failing to meet its legislative intent, the HHB Advisory Council has maintained a system that is better at protecting schools from lawsuits than it is at protecting students from harassment, hazing, and bullying.”
That letter urged the Agency of Education to hire “at least one” dedicated staffer to address harassment and bullying, strengthen training and investigation procedures for school staff, and collect better data on instances of hazing, harassment and bullying.
“We owe our students better,” the letter reads.
At the September meeting, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French appeared to bristle at the implication that the group was weighted toward the educational establishment.
Group members have sometimes “failed to deliver on doing your work,” French said.
“We have trouble getting agendas done, we have trouble (with) people showing up to the meetings.”
French also noted at a Nov. 28 meeting that the data cited in the letter drew from two different sources and did not present an “apples-to-apples comparison.”
A spokesperson for the Agency of Education did not reply to requests for comment.
Garcés acknowledged inconsistencies in the data, saying at the meeting that she was “not a data analyst.”
Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, noted that many principals and administrators are already swamped with paperwork around harassment and bullying incidents, and have little time to implement more proactive measures.
“They feel like there's a lot of things they could do that are educationally, pedagogically much better,” Nichols said. “But they're not really feeling like they're in a position to do (them).”
Ultimately, the council agreed to an in-person meeting in January with a facilitator to discuss a set of formal recommendations to state officials.
‘Some good work’
In interviews with VTDigger, other members of the advisory council said that the group has had measurable achievements, but it could be improved.
Jeff Fannon, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, who has been on the advisory council since its inception, said that the group has “done some good work over the years.”
Council members conducted a listening tour of schools in its early years, he said, and he pointed to its work organizing anti-bullying training for school bus drivers.
But the group “certainly could be more effective,” he said.
Fannon said he hopes that the upcoming in-person meeting will be more productive than the nearly three years of pandemic-era virtual meetings.
Council members Sue Ceglowski, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, and Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, agreed.
“I agree that we could be more effective, and that this in-person meeting is going to help us get on that path,” Ceglowski said.
“I think that an assertion or indication that the council is not as effective as it might be is not something that I would refute,” said Francis, adding that the council has “hit a point in history where we could examine, like, what our charge is vis-a-vis what the need is.”
Nichols, of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said that since the departure of a former chair last year, “there’s been a sense of, kind of, floundering.”
“We’d love to see hazing, harassment and bullying never occur in our schools,” Nichols said. “I think every council member agrees on that. There may be different opinions on how you get there.”
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