Administration Solidifies Anti-Bullying Policy

While students were on winter break, Phillips Academy administration drafted and finalized an anti-bullying plan, created in accordance with a Massachusetts state law enacted last spring. The legislation, entitled “An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools,” stipulated that all Massachusetts schools, whether public, private or charter, must establish a bullying prevention and intervention plan by December 31, 2010. Paul Murphy, Dean of Students and Residential Life, explained that the plan does not only describe the school’s response to bullying, but also serves to prevent bullying in the first place. Murphy, Maureen Nunez, Director of Risk Management, Maureen Ferris, Director of Human Resources and Julie Schmidt, Senior Human Resources Specialist collaborated to create Andover’s plan. According to Rebecca Sykes, Associate Head of School, much of Andover’s plan is based on a template sent to the school by AISNE (Association of Independent Schools in New England). “The framework was already there,” said Murphy. “We needed to add and subtract some things based on Andover and the fact that it’s a boarding school. It took quite a number of edits to get [the plan] where we wanted it to be.” The school also modeled aspects of its plan off of samples from both public and private schools. Andover additionally consulted with the school’s legal counsel while drafting the document to verify that it complied with the law. “People commenting on the statute have said how complicated it is, so one of the reasons we talked to our own counsel was to be sure we understood the law and what we were required to do,” said Sykes. “[The plan] isn’t all new for us because we have had a fairly strong standard for student conduct here for a long time, so it’s hard to believe that anything that would qualify as bullying wouldn’t have been addressed by Phillips Academy even before this statute.” Sykes noted that Andover has had an anti-harassment policy for many years. “The question is whether or not the anti-harassment policy would have been sufficient to catch everything,” Sykes said. “I think it probably would have been.” Sykes said that the school has always expected that Andover students treat one another with respect, but “the ability we now have with technology to spread more hurtful and damaging information about people creates a greater need for vigilance and support.” According to Sykes, the new plan is not different from the school’s previous response to bullying “in terms of what we would consider appropriate or inappropriate behavior,” though the plan is more explicit and uses new terminology, as defined in the statute. Murphy said, “As a private school, we always have assumed the right to protect the entire student body by responding when someone acts inappropriately toward another student. It’s something that’s part of our culture, so in some ways, this is not a policy that should change the culture of the school at all. It’s not new.” Murphy said that there are a few differences from how the school has treated bullying previously, giving the example of the potential involvement of law enforcement officials in a bullying case. “That’s a new twist to something that we wouldn’t have done otherwise.” In compliance with the law, the school emailed parents a draft of the plan in mid-December before finalizing it. Some parents expressed support for the plan. Other parents suggested changing the plan’s definition of bullying, as the document defined it to be a repeated behavior. According to Sykes, the school, in order to adhere to the wording of the statute, was unable to change the definition but did add a clause referring to Andover’s “own lower threshold for that type of behavior.” Murphy said, “[The clause] just makes [the plan] fall in line with what we’ve been doing all along. We certainly didn’t want the law to tie our hands and say [the behavior] has to be repeated for us to respond to it.” “I believe the law’s intention is for schools to be able to support and protect students from being mistreated, and I think trying to capture that in a law is really hard and trying to make sure to use whatever the appropriate language is in the plan can be difficult,” Sykes said. Sykes continued, “We tried to make sure that what’s currently in the Blue Book and what’s included in the plan is consistent.” Murphy noted that the Blue Book will be slightly adjusted due to the new policy. The plan, which will be posted online, will be referenced in the Blue Book and wording will be altered to include bullying. The administration hopes to discuss the plan with the Andover community in order to answer any questions and to make sure community members are familiar with the new policy, understand their responsibility to report information about bullying, and are aware of the school’s response to bullying. Murphy said that deans would first receive training on how to deal with allegations of bullying, followed by a meeting to ensure that faculty and staff understand the plan. Though the administration is still in the process of organizing a meeting for students, Murphy believes that cluster deans will inform students of the plan and address the issue of bullying.