As called for in the recently adopted Act 129, the newly formed Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council will provide advice to education officials throughout the state. It will also coordinate statewide activities in response to the problems.
One of those who introduced the idea of the council was Jeff Francis, executive director for the Vermont Superintendents Association. There are a number of groups in the state with a common interest in maintaining a safe school climate, but Francis said too often they have not worked collaboratively or efficiently.
"I don't think that those resources have always been and consistently been coordinated, so I see this council as an opportunity to come together periodically to both coordinate resources and develop a better understanding with respect to what communities are facing and, by extension, to what schools are facing," Francis said. "It's an important endeavor and one we have to constantly strive to do better at."
In addition to Francis, the 14-member council includes staff from the Department of Education, the principals association, teachers union, and more than a half-dozen other groups with a focus on education or harassment prevention.
Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the diversity of organizations
"The goal of the advisory council is to provide more resources and support to schools as they address issues of harassment, hazing, and/or bullying," the commissioner said. "I am confident the advisory council will be able to support schools in this manner. Their collective expertise is invaluable, and I look forward to working with them."
The council will report annually to the State Board of Education and the Education committees for the House and Senate.
Tracey Tsugawa, a civil rights investigator with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, has been appointed chairwoman of the council.
"All of the organizations involved in the council have reached a point where they believe there is a need for a much more coordinated effort in (pooling) resources," she said.
Tsugawa said it is difficult to gauge whether bullying has become more common in recent years because of inconsistencies in ways schools report incidents, but she said it is clear technology has had a profound effect on bullying and introduced issues that never used to be brought into school.
"The issues of cyberbullying and cyberharassment are exploding in our faces, and that's an issue I'm hoping this council can spend some significant time looking at," she said.
Much of the council's work will likely be based on best practices schools are using across the Vermont and the resources and strategies that have been successful in other states.
In addition to sharing what the individual groups are already doing, the council will rely heavily on feedback from people in the schools.
"I expect through the course of meetings during the year we will be asking school staff to come in and students to come in and talk with the council about successes in the schools or concerns they may have," Tsugawa said.
The council also expects to appoint a student representative for the upcoming school year.
The advisory council will hold its first meeting Aug. 31 in Montpelier, and at that time will decide how frequently it will meet. It is likely meetings will be held in different regions of the state to make it easier to get input from different schools, Tsugawa said.
In addition to the formation of the council, another piece of related legislation in Act 129 requires all schools to adopt a bullying prevention policy by Jan. 1, 2013. State law already requires schools to have harassment and hazing policies.