8:37 a.m. PDT March 21, 2016
Judson Middle School in Salem has been conducting a survey on bullying for years that experts say actually makes bullying worse instead of helping reduce it.
The survey has been issued annually and consists of six questions. The third question asks: “Who are the ‘bullies’ in this school? (list first name, last name, grade if you know).” The question is asked after the survey defines a “bully” as someone who “teases people or makes fun of others or tries to make others afraid of him or her.”
Adam Matot, the assistant principal at Judson, said the survey is needed to help prevent and respond to bullying at the school.
The survey originated more than 12 years ago, Matot said, when workers at the school realized they didn’t know where bullying was happening — or how to stop it.
Matot said once they learn where bullying is happening, they can put extra security in place, make certain locations off-limits, or take other actions to help. Having the students name specific students, he said, can potentially help them keep an eye out for kids they didn’t know were picking on others.
The survey is not mandatory, Matot said, and unless students wish to put their names at the bottom of the survey, it is anonymous.
John Inglish, education program specialist for the Oregon Department of Education, commended Judson officials for trying to prevent bullying, but added that asking students to identify bullies is problematic.
Research suggests those who are bullied are hesitant to name bullies in such a way, and Inglish said the question could be harmful not only for the student naming others, but also for the children engaging in bullying behavior.
He said the way the question is phrased labels kids as “bullies” and “victims,” rather than as children who are behaving in a way that needs to be changed.
However, the survey — without question three — could help create a safe space and get help for students who are harassed and threatened, he said.
Matot said out of the nearly 950 students in the school, more than 600 usually say there is no bullying in the school.
He said he and the school’s principal and behavior specialist collect the surveys and create a list of names generated from question three. They are aware some students jokingly write their friends’ names or list someone they just don’t like. So he said they have to take the responses with a grain of salt.
But once a student has been named five, six or more times, officials start to take notice. Matot said they do not take any disciplinary action from the survey, but should an incident occur with a child who was named multiple times, they can refer back to the list.
Inglish said this targets a group of kids on hearsay, rather than on sound, defensible rationale and evidence.
“Asking students to name ‘bullies’ without following up with an investigation is a problem,” Inglish said. “If I was a parent of a student on that list, I would be concerned.”
Judson is the only school in the district that distributes this survey, Salem-Keizer district spokesman Jay Remy said; however, there are three district “climate” surveys given in the fourth, seventh and 10th grades that ask questions about harassment and threats. These surveys do not ask for specific names.
Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, reportedly wrote the first book ever published on cyber bullying.
“This is a horrendous question to ask,” she said, referring to question three of Judson’s survey.
“Labeling is only going to increase hurtful behavior,” she said. “This school (Judson) has made a huge mistake and is hurting students.”
However, Willard agreed with Inglish in saying Judson is doing some things right. She said they are going “above and beyond” by giving an additional survey to stop bullying behaviors, aside from the other climate surveys.
Issues with the survey came up when Don Fensler substituted for an advisory class at Judson on Feb. 11, the day the survey was due to be distributed.
Fensler said he was uncomfortable with the third question. He took the survey forms to the front office and informed them he couldn’t administer it.
“I found question three very disturbing, as I felt It was highly inappropriate and unprofessional to ask students ‘Who are the bullies in this school?’ — to tattle on one another like that in the ‘open’ classroom, where others could easily see what they wrote, especially in a classroom of 25 to 30 middle schoolers with a substitute teacher in charge,” Fensler said.
Officials from the school later distributed the survey to the class.
“I felt it (the question) was a form of bullying, pitting student against student in a very uncontrolled environment,” he said. “Students could accuse others without basis, and there was no explanation of how the accusations would be handled.”
Almost a month later, Fensler received an evaluation in the mail, signed by Matot.
Matot wrote on the evaluation, “Mr. Fensler refused to administer the bully survey … This is something we do annually to keep our school safe and bully-free, yet he refused. This is unacceptable.”
Remy said there is no specific district policy regarding whether a substitute must deliver the lesson plan provided to them.
When asked about the situation with Fensler specifically, Matot said he is “not at liberty to discuss any personnel issues.”
“No one would disagree that bullying is a problem,” Fensler said, “and students need to know how they can report it. But this way seems highly unprofessional, possibly leading to the innocent being ostracized or punished.”