VACHI proposal for a First Offender Program to Address Bullying, Name calling, Harassment and other hate behavior – April 2010


The issue of what a teacher should do when confronted with name calling or other hate behavior is an important topic of discussion. Teachers wonder whether there is some option short of referral of hate behavior, and in specific, name calling that they witness.  If a referral is not made, each of the following occurs:


1.  The person who was engaging in name-calling or other hate behavior is    emboldened into believing that there are no consequences to such behavior.


2.  The person who was engaging in name-calling or other hate behavior, and anyone who witnessed it would be led into the belief that such conduct does NOT violate any school policy; if it did, the teacher would HAVE to refer the student.


3. The victim is left without protection and placed in the untenable position of believing that not even the teacher will protect him/her.


            Why would a teacher think that a referral would not be indicated?  Any of the following are possible explanations.


1.      The teacher does not think that name calling or other hate behavior is a violation of school rules.


2.      The teacher thinks a referral will result in serious discipline (e.g suspension) and does not want the guilty party to get in trouble (or does not want to deal with unhappy parents who hold the teacher responsible for the suspension).


3.      The teacher doesn’t think the incident was any big deal or is “just part of growing up”.


4.      The teacher doesn’t want to take time from his/her instruction to make a referral.


None of the above are very good answers and each continues to foster an atmosphere where name-calling and hate behavior is tolerated.


            The Department of Justice studied bullying.  Their report, on VACHI’s website, talks about the problem with zero tolerance policies, when they actually exist (e.g. when one incident can result in expulsion or termination).  Such policies typically do not work to eliminate the problems sought to be addressed because neither victims nor witnesses will report for fear of a heavy hand coming down on another person.  While it is clear that most high schools do not have “real” zero tolerance policies, as kids are not expelled for bullying, name calling or similar harassment, if the teachers think that the school follows a zero tolerance policy, which most schools claim they have, perhaps that is having a negative effect.


            VACHI’s goal is to engage in a dialogue to help come up with new ideas to foster a hate-free environment.  VACHI believes that the idea of a punishment being more suitable for the act and more consistent with the ultimate goal of reducing and eliminating hate behavior is something that should be discussed.  Again, the DOJ study discusses the problem with suspension and other “zero tolerance” actions; they do nothing to teach the harasser the lessons that need to be taught, and they do not protect the victim the day the suspension ends.  This was proven in the Prince case where the victimization got worse immediately after one student was suspended for one day and then returned to school.  If schools had a comprehensive program that the students and teachers worked together to create, perhaps the teachers would be more willing to immediately refer a student, secure in the knowledge that the discipline that is given out would help to teach the student an important lesson and hopefully reduce and eliminate hate behavior.


            VACHI proposes a disciplinary lesson on hate behavior.  We envision a program where any student referred to administration for a witnessed incident of hate behavior,, including any name calling, would have to read an article, story, research/report and then answer some targeted questions about the reading.  The questions would include things of a factual nature (e.g. read the article and report on specific problems discussed) as well as  some short answers in perspective taking – to get the student to stand for a moment in the shoes of the victim.  The lesson would include a follow up with the student’s parent, both in writing and by phone and require that the parent review the lesson and answers with the student and sign that such review had taken place.  Truthfully, many parents aggravate the name-calling problem by using language that was and still is culturally permissible but is now known to be hurtful and hateful.  The lesson would be required to be done during lunch detention so that there is some social consequence to the referral – e.g. the loss of a privilege. We think if there was a “first offender” program, something like drug diversion programs in the criminal justice system, we would go far to fostering VACHI’s  goals – to educate students, faculty and parents about the consequences of hate behavior. Such a first offender program can also offer the offender the opportunity to clear his/her record if he/she remains free of additional referrals just as is done for first time drug offenders who participate in diversion programs.


            Teachers do not understand the problems with name-calling and behavior that for decades has been part of growing up.  They see it and may tell a student to stop it but don’t realize that this does NOT teach anyone that the behavior is offensive.   More importantly, it leaves the victim feeling even more alone.  Again, the Phoebe Prince tragedy must teach everyone of the need to report any witnessed incident since so many others will go unwitnessed.  Our proposed first offender program is not designed to be exclusive to witnessed incidents; we want to encourage reporting of any incident so it can be investigated.  We recognize, however, that a witnessed incident is easier to swiftly address. We believe that a first offender type of program would be something that teachers would readily welcome because they no longer will have to have any involvement in discipline and can quickly refer the student to the administration and know that appropriate follow up instruction will take place to emphasize the importance of respecting others.


            VACHI believes that students, administration and teachers should work with counselors to develop “curriculum” to use in any first offender program that can be specifically targeted to diverse populations in any school environment. We need the teachers to not only follow whatever the organized approach is, but to help create it so that it helps to do what is most important – teach all students the importance of respect and the consequences of hate motivated behavior so that we can end this problem at high schools before any more have to face a tragedy of the kind experienced in South Hadley.