Murray, KY – It's been over a year and a half since the Kentucky General Assembly passed HB-91, commonly referred to as "the golden rule act." It requires all public schools to have anti-harassment, or "bullying" policies in place. Forty-four states have anti-bullying legislation. However, a recent report from the Associated Press says these policies aren't affective because adults don't enforce them. Angela Hatton investigates whether Kentucky's "golden rule act" is curtailing school bullying.
Dr. Allen Beane is more than a retired educator, anti-bullying lecturer, and multi-book author. He's also a father. Beane's son Curtis was in middle school when he first encountered bullying, and Beane transferred his son to another school. But the harassment started again after Curtis lost two fingers in an auto accident.
"The back of his hand was completely gone so they took a big slab of skin off of his leg and sewed it on the back of his hand, so his hand was pretty ugly and kids made fun of it."
Curtis told his parents about the teasing at school, but Beane thinks it was worse than what his son let on.
"He really held things inside of him, and it ate him alive. He got depressed, had anxiety problems, couldn't stay in college, couldn't keep a job because of his depression. Medication was difficult to manage, figure that out. And then, he met some people who dealt with drugs and he made a bad choice."
Curtis became a meth addict and in his early twenties he accidentally overdosed and died. It was his son's story that prompted his calling to prevent classroom bullying. He helped draft the original "Golden Rule Act" legislation in 2002 that Representative Mike Cherry of Princeton sponsored. Cherry spent six years trying to move the law through the General Assembly. He says the bill's strengths include provisions that mandate harassment reporting measures and staff training.
"Are there going to be cases that fall through the cracks. Well certainly, of course there is. But I think we have a much better chance of stopping bullying and the end result often of bullying which is violence, through legislation."
Karen McCuiston works for the Kentucky Center for School Safety as Post-Secondary Education Director. But she encountered bullying at its worst while serving as Public Relations Director at Heath High School in Paducah when the tragic shootings occurred. McCuiston says the Center for School Safety backed the bullying bill. She says they wanted Kentucky to show the issue's importance through legislation.
When asked what results she's seen from HB-91, McCuiston says more than anything else, the measure has temporarily highlighted the need for school bullying vigilance.
"We will use it for quite a few years, because it's out there, it's fresh, we're still on the wave. I'm not sure that the wave will stay on a crest for a long time, but while the crest is out there we're going to get this education out there, we're going to see what we can get in place in our schools."
While Allen Beane helped pen the bill, he knows legislation isn't the only way to limit school violence. Beane began his efforts shortly after his son died by authoring the book The Bully-Free Classroom. His book spawned an education curriculum of the same name that Beane has presented to schools across the country.
"The only way you can really attack this problem is have a school-wide effort. And you've got to empower the bystanders, the students. You've got to get the parents on board, and all the teachers on board. Everybody has to be addressing this every day."
A poster of a dour looking bull-dog with the words "Bully-Free Zone" is taped to the door to Murray Middle School guidance counselor Leisa Faughn's office. Similar signs and posters proclaim "no bullying" throughout the school's hallways and in each classroom. The Murray Independent School District was one of the prototypes for Beane's curriculum and Faughn says they continue to use the material today.
"And the notion and the philosophy behind it is that we are all teaching these lessons, cause I couldn't begin to teach on a daily basis 550 children bully lessons."
There is a problem with a curriculum like "Bully Free." Faughn says they can't really say if it's working or not. For one, the school has no equivalent system to measure data against. And, Faughn says, bullying isn't just measurable data like number of fights or number of times a student raises a complaint.
"Like if you're in the cafeteria and somebody doesn't let you sit down, that's not a piece of data. We don't have how many times did this happen in the day in the cafeteria, or if someone made fun of me for wearing glasses or my ethnicity."
Faughn personally believes the method is affective. She, like Kentucky Center for School Safety's Karen McCuiston has hope.
"I think we can make a cultural change. I have to believe that or I wouldn't be in a job like this. But I do think that it's a repetitive thing that we have to continue to do. Because if we ever let any one of those pieces go away if we ever put it on a shelf and say this is done then we will not continue to impact what we need to impact."
So is HB-91 effective? Most say not by itself, but maybe as part of a greater movement. The Center for School Safety reports over the past five years, there has been a steady decline in the number of disciplinary actions taken by Kentucky school boards. That means fewer instances of violence, intimidation, and threatening. The report has also seen a decrease in adolescent drug abuse. However, there's been an increase in alcohol abuse and suicide remains the second leading cause of death in teens. Advocates say they'll continue to speak out for those bullying victims that can't be measured by statistics.