MONTPELIER — The Agency of Education is looking for money to support its efforts to prevent bullying in public schools.
The agency is seeking a $120,000 appropriation to develop a program to train school staff in responding to bullying, as well as to create a statewide data collection system to analyze surveys on school climate and learn which bullying prevention programs are working.
The House Appropriations Committee referred the proposal — which would cost about $1.50 per Vermont student — to the House Education Committee.
Tracey Tsugawa, chairwoman of the agency’s Hazing, Harassment and Bullying Advisory Council, made her case Wednesday afternoon to legislators.
“I get calls on a weekly basis where school staff wants someone to come and do training on bullying and harassment,” Tsugawa told the Education Committee. “Teachers are not taught intervention skills during their teacher training. You need to address the climate in the schools. It doesn’t matter what the curriculum is if students don’t feel safe at school.”
The appropriation would create a program wherein trainers from the Education Agency would work with representatives from supervisory unions or school districts, who would then train the teachers and staff at the schools.
Democratic Rep. Barbara Rachelson, of Burlington, suggested the training program should be used not just for schools but for private pre-kindergarten programs, recreation teams and other youth programs.
“Since kids are not just in school, we’d like them to benefit from this,” Rachelson said.
The data collection and analysis component of the plan is crucial, first and foremost because there is no statewide data on trends in bullying and harassment, Tsugawa said.
“We have some national studies and we can extrapolate from them, but Vermont is such a diverse state in terms of the sizes of schools, from the very small and rural to the suburban,” she said.
Rep. Valerie Stuart, a Democrat from Brattleboro, suggested there are other ways to address bullying, such as schoolwide assemblies, newsletters and parent-teacher organizations.
“There are a lot of steps that we can take that don’t cost money,” Stuart said. “Data is great, but we need a fast, effective solution that won’t cost a lot of money.”
Tsugawa said the effectiveness of an anti-bullying program can be evaluated only over time; she drew a comparison to the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered to the state’s students every two years.
Playing — as she called it — the devil’s advocate, committee Chairwoman Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington, brought up the lessons taught in Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which address the notions of sharing and not hitting each other.
“What else do they need to know?” Donovan asked.
“By the fifth grade, those teachings in kindergarten have gone out the window,” Tsugawa said, while Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, noted Fulghum’s book does not address more modern problems being faced by today’s students, such as cyberbullying.
Republican Rep. Bernard Juskiewicz, of Cambridge, described the training as crucial.
“If we can save one person’s life, it will be money well spent,” Juskiewicz said.
The committee took no vote to make a recommendation, positive or negative, to the Appropriations Committee. Donovan said her panel might hear additional testimony on the subject.
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