Increasingly school safety, whether it is school shootings or chronic bullying or ineffective discipline policies, prompts families to seek educational options. Children should not fear for their safety to receive an education and families should not have to accept unsafe conditions for lack of alternatives.
In early June, a fifth-grade Plaistow student spoke at a Timberlane School District meeting about threats and bullying she and classmates endure. She said that she “has been threatened to be shot in the head with an AK-47 and buried in her backyard.” In an interview with NBC Boston, Delanie Marcotte told the reporter that going before the school board “was a last resort after months of dreading going to school” even though the family repeatedly informed administration. In a follow-up memo, the board indicates they are investigating further.
Sadly, this is not an isolated problem. An Eagle Tribune article from last October said that three fights occurred at Salem High School in a six week period and a parent described the school as having a “fight club” atmosphere.
During the 2016 football season, Samuel Alicea experienced extreme bullying at Merrimack Valley High School over his political beliefs and someone shot a BB gun through his grandmother’s car windshield. Although officials were aware of the on-going harassment, ultimately, he had to transfer schools.
Another student, Mario Fusco, experienced a bullying incident at his school in the Kearsage Regional School District that sent him to the hospital. The administration was ineffective at stopping the abuse, so Mario and his younger brother left their schools for a safer environment.
At the December 2017 state Board of Education meeting we testified about a desperate family that contacted us in early August. Their son, age 11, had been involved in a severe bullying incident that the school did not resolve. They requested a reassignment to a nearby school in-district, one that is five miles from their home. Instead, they were offered a transfer to a school nearly an hour away; not a realistic option for the parents’ work situations. In the email to us, the mom said that when she asked the superintendent about their transfer preference, he said “that it would be too much of a hassle for them [the district].” They did not indicate that enrollment was a consideration, only their convenience. (The state BOE’s discussion on MEH can be found on the state BOE video site, under the NH SB Video tab. Select the December 2017 meeting, beginning at 2:48:00.)
More recently, a 12-year-old boy, Jack Isenberg, committed suicide reportedly because of unresolved bullying. Apparently, just before the Memorial Day holiday he was in a physical fight with his tormentors when one boy told Jack to kill himself. The school administration was aware of the ongoing problems and altercation but failed to resolve it.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education’s 2016-2017 Bullying Report, there were 2,233 reported incidents of bullying across the state’s elementary, middle, and high schools. Of these, 243 incidents interfered with the students’ educational opportunities. These figures are stable across the last several years, but every year several schools fail to complete the department’s School Safety Survey.
Each one of these incidents impacts a NH child. No child should have to endure an unsafe environment for an education.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the current version of No Child Left Behind, has a provision called the Unsafe School Choice Option. It allows students to transfer to another public school if their assigned school is considered “persistently dangerous.” That label is very narrowly defined by states. According to the Heartland Institute, fewer than 50 public schools of approximately 100,000 across the country are considered “persistently dangerous.”
In New Hampshire the applicable statute is RSA 193-G. To be labeled a “persistently dangerous” school, three of the following acts must occur as separate incidents during a single school year for three consecutive years: homicide; first or second-degree assault; aggravated felonious sexual assault; arson; class A felony; and unlawful possession or sale of a firearm or dangerous weapon. The statute also requires that the incidents occur on school grounds during school hours or a school-sponsored event, or during transportation of students to or from school. Under this narrow definition, no New Hampshire school is considered “persistently dangerous.” Even though a 14-year-old student was raped at Manchester High School West two years ago, it is not considered a “persistently dangerous” school by this definition.
Typically, school districts and boards are not liable for injuries children receive from bullying incidents. A Massachusetts elementary student was chronically bullied and the administration was well-aware of the problem yet ineffective at stopping it. One day the bully shoved the other student down a flight of stairs leaving him paralyzed and in a coma. According to MA law, the school is not liable because they did not do the physical act of pushing the child.
Why is there such a wide-spread bullying problem, not only in NH, but across the country?
One contributing factor may be a disciple reform effort initiated by the US Department of Education in a “Dear Colleague” letter under President Obama in 2014. Like many federal policies, it had a top-down impact to local districts. It attempts to be more positive and emphasizes second-chances and counseling instead of traditional consequences such as suspensions; it is referred to as restorative discipline. On the surface it sounds like a healthier approach to student behavior, but some sources speculate it is fueling more not fewer discipline problems. An EdWeek article says “Alas, in a profession where ideologically motivated reforms abound, restorative justice in many districts has recklessly morphed into de facto ‘no student removal’ policies that are every bit as flawed as the inflexible zero-tolerance policies they were designed to replace.”
Supporters of this discipline approach claim significant suspension reductions, but that does not necessarily mean a reduction in bullying and other behavior problems. This behavior modification process lacks empirical research to support its effectiveness claims. Max Eden, of the Manhattan Institute did a study called “School Discipline Reform and Disorder.” In his research Eden found that while NYC Mayor de Blasio claimed safer schools using restorative justice, “more than half the schools saw a deterioration in mutual respect, and only a fifth saw an improvement, according to students. On physical fighting, gang activity, and drug use, three times as many schools saw a deterioration as saw an improvement, according to students.” Teachers are also frustrated with this approach to student discipline. One Ohio teacher said it is “setting our students up for a life of failure.” Some people believe restorative justice is a kinder, gentler approach to behavior modification, but is failing to make our schools safe learning environments. It also ignores the psychological and physical wellbeing of the children who are victimized.
What relief mechanisms are available to families?
Educational opportunities are solutions to chronic bullying and unsafe educational environments.
Earlier this spring Florida Governor Rick Scott enacted the Hope Scholarship Program, a tax-credit scholarship, that is available to K-12 students who are victims of bullying. The Heartland Institute recently announced a policy brief called “Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts.” It proposes that state funding be given to families as savings accounts if their children are trapped in unsafe environments. Neither is available in the Granite State, but there are some other options.
New Hampshire local school boards are already empowered with the ability to place students in another school within the district or a different district. It is the Manifest Educational Hardship statute, RSA 193:3. It is typically used to place children with special needs in different schools, including private institutions. In these cases, the funding follows the child to the alternative education provider. Unfortunately, very few school boards use this option for victims of bullying. We know some families have sought relief and been denied, even when appealing to the state Board of Education. This effectively traps victims in unsafe environments. Efforts to expand the Manifest Educational Hardship law to explicitly include the child’s best interests were unsuccessful this year.
An alternative within the public school system is chartered public schools which are not constrained by zip codes. They do not charge tuition and are open to all children. The only limitation is enrollment availability. The state Board of Education recently approved a couple new charter schools and some plan to open with the 2018-2019 school year.
The tax-credit scholarship program provided by the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH is available to some families. Low-income children switching out of public schools for either private or home education are eligible. In 2017 CSFNH awarded over $600K to 260 children; hopefully they can build on this every year to help more and more children. The DOE has a list of all approved non-public schools in the state.
Homeschooling, including online education, is another option for some families. NH has a vibrant home ed community with numerous local support groups and state-wide organizations, including Granite State Home Educators, our sister organization.
Unfortunately, many children are not able to utilize these options and remain trapped in unsafe educational environments.
We pledge to continue our work to support efforts and legislation that expands opportunities for NH families whether it is Education Savings Accounts or other programs.
Children have one chance at their K-12 education. They deserve to learn in a safe environment.
For more about bullying and Manifest Educational Hardship, read the following stories: