‘Stand your ground’ meets bullies at school

‘Stand your ground’ meets bullies at school

(Calif.) Anna Mendez, whose 16-year-old son committed suicide after fighting with student bullies, doesn’t condone violence.

In fact, the non-profit group she founded to fight bullying in the wake of her son’s death encourages harmony, she said, but paradoxically is also in favor of a Florida school trustee’s effort to ban disciplinary action against a student defending him- or herself in a physical attack.

“As a national association that promotes peace, we certainly don’t want to encourage violence of any kind,” said Mendez, executive director of the National Association of People Against Bullying. “At the same time, we have a real problem with the so-called zero-tolerance policies and the fact that both children are punished when one is only trying to defend himself.”

Public schools nationwide have begun pulling back from the “zero-tolerance” policies widely enacted in the mid-1990s and using alternative disciplinary strategies to avoid unnecessary suspensions or expulsions and keep kids in school. Updated, modern discipline policies focus on giving school administrators more discretion in dealing with rule breakers, and they promote positive conflict resolution in which all involved parties needs are addressed.

The proposal by Duval County Public Schools trustee Jason Fischer is intended to protect a student who fights back when attacked from facing any disciplinary action if it’s determined that the student was defending him- or herself.

“If somebody attacks you, you should be able to use physical force to stop your attacker,” Fischer told Cabinet Report. “What I’m saying with this proposal is let’s not further victimize someone who’s already been harmed.”

His proposal has been called the school version of the state’s Stand Your Ground law, under which a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations without an obligation to retreat.

But Fischer calls the comparison “sensationalism” and says his plan “is really just a self-defense” and fairness issue.

“You can evade, block or use physical force to stop an attacker from harming you,” Fischer said. “I’m not talking here about using fire arms; I’m not talking about using deadly force. I’m just saying that a student has a right to defend himself and that we shouldn’t punish the victim at all.”

Under current district policy, students who fight are labeled “mutual combatants” and punished equally, said Fischer, whose initiative led to the creation of a subcommittee to vet the district’s Code of Conduct and return to the board with recommended changes to some of the regulations.

The new policy – due to be voted on by the board July 1 – calls for differentiating between the role of each student involved in a fight (i.e., aggressor or victim) and meting out a lesser punishment to a kid found to be defending himself. It does not, however, include Fischer’s ‘no-punishment-for-fighting-back’ clause because of concerns among some on the committee that it sends the wrong message to students.

Fischer, who said he’s hoping at that meeting to convince his colleagues to insert the provision in the policy, has his work cut out for him.  

“I feel uncomfortable, and certain board members felt uncomfortable, with the idea of no consequence at all,” Duval superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Tampa Bay’s First Coast News. “Because if there is no consequence, you signal that violence is acceptable.”

On the night before he died, Daniel Mendez – after years of physical and verbal harassment in which he turned the other cheek – was apparently thinking of fighting back and worried about the consequences he might face, according to his mother.

A polite student on his school’s football team, with good grades, good friends, a black belt in tae kwon do and college in his future, Daniel came into his parents’ room to ask them if they’d be mad if he got suspended, Anna Mendez said. Then he asked if he could skip part of the school day the next day.  When his mother realized he was asking because he was considering self-defense against those bullying him, she finally told him: “If someone is bothering you, you choose the biggest one and punch him right in the nose.”

The next day, May 1, 2009, the San Clemente High School sophomore finally struck a blow but, outnumbered 2-1, he was beaten up by his persecutors and, feeling humiliated and hopeless, left school and shot himself less than an hour later.

A policy such as the one proposed by Fischer, said Anna Mendez, is needed for victims of bullying who have tried every other avoidance technique available to them and are simply defending themselves from physical abuse. Not necessarily because this is the answer to bullying, she said, but because it's just not right to punish each student equally when one trouble maker is obviously the instigator and the other is only trying to survive.

Washington State’s Kennewick School Board in April made changes to its discipline policy that give school principals the option of doling out more severe punishments to those who instigate fights – if they can accurately determine who is responsible.

Fischer said he doesn’t see sorting out who shoulders the blame in an altercation as being a problem because most times school administrators are able to make that determination, either because of eyewitness accounts or, as is the case in many Duval schools, security camera footage.

Elizabeth Chapin Pinotti, assistant superintendent of California’s Amador County Unified School district, said, however, that all too often, there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to sorting out conflicts and imposing consequences.

“It’s so hard to put a sweeping policy like that into place because, just like it was difficult for us to implement zero-tolerance, it’s also difficult for us when it’s so absolute or to the other extreme,” she said.

The best policies, Chapin-Pinotti said, are those that give discretion to the school site administrators to make the best decision given the facts of the situation, with an appeals process available.

In the meantime, Anna Mendez and the NAPAB foundation will continue their campaign against bullying and their staunch advocacy on behalf of its victims.

“What we are really fighting for are children’s rights, which should be similar to the rights an adult has if someone is using force against them,” she said. “It's bad enough that the student perpetrators are getting away with it.  The victims should absolutely have the right to attack back with the same force and not be punished for doing so.”    

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