By the end of the month the River Falls School District should have a policy for teachers and administrators to follow when complaints are made about bullying.

"Our belief is that we won't tolerate this kind of demeaning behavior," Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said. "When there are instances of it, we're going to deal with it and also try to do everything to prevent it from happening in the first place."

When Westerhaus became superintendent last summer, he was surprised that River Falls didn't have a bullying policy. It has one for harassment.

The state's Department of Public Instruction has encouraged school districts to establish policies against bullying and the Legislature almost passed such a bill. Westerhaus said Minnesota law requires school districts to have such policies.

Westerhaus admitted that policies for harassment and bullying stem, in part, from increasing concerns about school violence and fatal shootings.

He added that bullying, while it undoubtedly occurs, is not a big issue in River Falls.

"What we're doing here is more preventative," Westerhaus said. "Still, I don't want to de-emphasize the importance of having this policy. Kids will tease and bully. I've been in education for 35 years, and I know it happens everywhere."

The school board will vote on a new bullying policy at its regular meeting Monday night.

Westerhaus said his message to parents is this: "We will take a clear stand against any of our students being intimidated in any way. We have the means to deal with the issue and procedures that we expect the building principals, counselors and our teachers to follow."

The proposed new policy to go before the school board says:

  • Bullying includes aggressive or hostile behavior that is intentional and one-sided, and is "typically repeated over time."
  • Bullying can also be characterized by "teasing, put-downs, name calling, cruel rumors, false accusations and hazing."
  • This applies not only to students who bully, but also to students who "condone or support another student's act of bullying."
  • Retaliation against a victim, good-faith reporter, or a witness of bullying is prohibited.
  • School staff members with knowledge of bullying must report cases to the principal.
  • After receiving a complaint, school officials must conduct an investigation.

    Westerhaus said the bullying policy only covers acts that occur on school grounds.

    "However, if we know this stuff is occurring with our students somewhere else, we will try to do something about it," he said.

    The guidelines also extend to incidents between school staff and students.

    Pat McCardle, Meyer Middle School interim assistant principal, said the school district's new policy reflects the "zero tolerance" toward bullying and harassment in the adult world and workplace.

    "While bullying was sometimes seen as a rite of growing up in our society, students today need to learn this is not a socially acceptable form of behavior," he said.

    Like Westerhaus, McCardle -- who's also held administrative positions at Greenwood Elementary and the high school -- said bullying isn't a "large problem" in River Falls.

    "Does it exist here? Certainly," he said. "It will anywhere there are kids. Teasing, poking fun does seem to be part of the natural process of growing up."

    McCardle said that bullying in River Falls tends to be more verbal than physical. He conceded that acts of bullying are also open to interpretation.

    "The line can be very gray. It's not always a black and white one," he said. "Crossing that line can be a matter of perception, and the level of sensitivity as to what constitutes bullying will vary among different people."

    What's important, McCardle said, is establishing benchmarks for inappropriate student behavior.

    "Having this policy gives us parameters to work with, both for victims and offenders," he said. "It becomes a talking point for our kids, a learning tool."