By Jane Balvanz, MSE, RPT
Professional School Counselor
Every once in a while, I experience a bullying case where there are no witnesses. There’s the alleged target’s version and the alleged bully’s version of what happened. They’re not the same. Numerous bullying situations continue to be reported by the same alleged target against the same alleged bully, and as many investigations are launched. No witnesses can be found, and the two kids involved have different stories each and every time. It’s time-consuming and frustrating. Makes me want to call in sick for a week or two!
We can speculate on the reasons this is happening:
- Either the bully or target is lying.
- Either the bully or target cannot read social cues.
- The bully is sneaky, calculating, and knows when no one is watching.
- The target is sneaky, calculating, and trying to frame the other student.
- No one on staff is watching the interactions of the two.
- The staff isn’t trained to detect bullying behaviors.
- No one cares to intervene.
- Bystanders won’t talk or don’t exist.
Doing Our Best, Nothing Changes
Setting speculation aside, let’s imagine the bullying investigation has been well-performed and safety measures are in place. Staff know to keep the two parties apart. In the less structured areas like the hallways and lunchroom, staff closely monitor the two parties. Both sets of parents have been informed of the alleged incidents. Everything has been documented. It comes down to She Said/She Said or He Said/He Said. And, alleged bullying is still happening and being reported.
The parents of the alleged target worry for their child’s safety. The parents of the alleged bully worry for their child’s reputation, with so allegations. The staff members are weary.
The Breaking Point
Although this circumstance isn’t common, it occurs more often than you may imagine. When a bullying investigation is done well and allegations continue, parental denial – either target or bully – need be considered. No one likes to believe their child capable of bullying or dishonesty, but likely it’s happening when things go this far. This is the time when the alleged target’s parents say, “How can you allow this bullying to keep happening? Isn’t this a zero tolerance school?”
Explaining Best Practices
When I answer those questions, I’m guided by the practices of American law and justice. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. (That’s why I’ve chosen to use the word “alleged” in this article.) There must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that an unlawful act has been committed. Assume nothing. Each party deserves due process.
The following process guidelines will aid parents’ understanding in a bullying case. While keeping confidentiality of the parties involved, say:
- The school or district’s policy on bullying is this (cite it, show it, or give a hard copy.)
- This is what we have to do (give due process to all parties involved).
- This is what we’ve done (interviewed all parties involved, put monitoring and safety measures in place, informed parents, etc.)
- This is what we’ve found (the allegations are true, the allegations aren’t true, there is inconclusive evidence at this point, or the case is ongoing)
- This is what will continue to happen, or this investigation is concluded.
- (When parents refuse the conclusion) This is the person you can contact with your concerns (name of school authority in charge of higher investigations).
The Bottom Line to Parents
Zero tolerance bullying policies don’t ensure that bullying won’t happen. They mean when bullying happens, it won’t be abided. Consequences will be given as a deterrent. Disputed allegations, especially with no witnesses, must have circumstantial evidence that proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, bullying has taken place.
If this explanation seems unreasonable or unfair to the parents you inform, I have a reminder. Though it took years of investigation, and the circumstantial evidence was damning, both OJ Simpson and Casey Anthony were not convicted of murders of which the world thought them guilty. There was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And, in America, we have a zero tolerance policy against murder.