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Parent Notification Laws: States' Consideration for Handling Bullying Cases

“How was school today?”

It’s a seemingly innocent question that millions of parents ask their children every day.

But for the parents of bullied students, asking how their day was is more than just a way of understanding what they did in school, it’s a critical tactic in the quest to keep them safe.

Unfortunately, despite their prodding, parents often find themselves in the dark about the threats or abuses that their children endure at school. Sometimes, these hidden stories end in tragedy.

On April 13, 2015, 13-year old Jacobe Taras shot himself in his New York state home, the Times Union reports, but not before leaving a note to his parents that detailed the torment he faced at the hands of bullies at school. His parents knew about certain incidents that occurred on the school bus, but were not aware of just how far-reaching the abuse was.

In the wake of the tragedy, Jacobe’s parents sued the school for ignoring possible signs of abuse and for not notifying them as to the extent of the problem. Just this week, the New York state senate passed “Jacobe’s Law,” which would require administrators to notify parents when their children are found to have been bullied in schools. Jacobe’s Law will now go to the state assembly for a vote.

It’s the latest in a series of recent state laws confronting the issue of parental notification and bullying. For many states, parent notification is a no brainer. But the issue is often more complicated than you might think.

New York considers ‘Jacobe’s Law’

“No child should have to experience bullying in or out of school,” writes New York State Sen. Jim Tedisco in an op-ed for the Times Union:

“Schools should make parents aware of threats of violence to their children so that a parent or guardian can take action they deem appropriate to protect their child’s safety and emotional well-being.”

Jacobe’s Law, which Tedisco introduced in the Senate, modifies the state’s current bullying law, the Dignity for All Students Act, which lets school districts create their own notification process. The new bill mandates school officials to make a good-faith effort to notify parents when their child is either bullied or accused of bullying.

Virginia implements deadlines for notification

Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill that requires school principals to notify parents when their child is bullied, WTOP reports. The Virginia law goes further than New York’s by placing a deadline for notification of no more than one week after the bullying incident occurs.

Like the New York bill, the Virginia law was inspired by a true story.

When 17-year-old Brandon Farbstein faced cyberbullying that targeted his dwarfism, his parents said they felt out of the loop.

As his mother, Sylvia, tells WTOP:

“I, as a parent, would have felt better supported had I heard what was going on in each step of the investigation and what the next phase would entail. All communication was initiated by me.”

The new law puts the burden of investigation and communication on schools, rather than parents.

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New Jersey rethinks notification

While states like New York and Virginia are pursuing parental mandates for bullying notification, others are rethinking that same approach.

As Adam Clark reports in NJ.com, in a recent presentation, New Jersey Department of Education officials suggested that the state’s Board of Education reconsider a rule that mandates schools to automatically notify parents when their children report being bullied.

Of concern for officials is that LGBTQ students who haven’t come out to their parents will be outed when the bullying is reported. Officials see the process of coming out as a deeply personal one—one that schools should not influence indirectly through policy.

For more on how schools are facing bullying issues, read ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ presents a new bullying challenge for schools. Here’s what you can do.

While no confirmed instances of N.J. schools outing students to their parents have been reported, LGBTQ advocates contend that the policy keeps bullied students from reporting abuse for fear of being outed.

State education department officials recently suggested a new rule that doesn’t require automatic notification, but does require schools to consider incidents on a case-by-case basis before notifying parents.

While parent notifications seem like a practical way to help protect students, finding consensus on the best way to notify parents is clearly more of a challenge.

Does your state mandate schools to notify parents about bullying? What steps, if any, does your district take to keep parents in the loop when it comes to student abuse? Tell us in the comments.