Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators (MBSA), shared his perspective on bullying after recent media attention.
"Obviously, I'm distressed and disheartened because it's my hometown, but it doesn't surprise me because I see it at my level as well," he said. "I'm a graduate of Park Rapids High School and was proud to represent that area as a state legislator for many years."
Kinkel said complaints his office receives about bullying have increased statewide.
"It's a discussion we all have to have," he said.
ACEs and bullying
Kinkel said that an increased number of children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is related to bullying.
"What has changed is the number of children coming to school from trauma-infested homes," Kinkel said. "Trauma biologically impacts their frontal cortex, their social and emotional behavior. You've got administrators dealing with a group of kids who might literally not biologically know what they're doing is wrong. You've got kids that have had adults in their life betray them and kids that are just surviving. Administrators are grappling with all of that."
He said the biggest issue is funding to help trauma students. "What would help more than anything else is if the federal government would pay what they promised for Special Ed services," he said. "They're supposed to be paying 40 percent and they're not, and school districts are eating into their general fund money to subsidize so they don't have money for other services."
Kinkel said schools are also dealing with parents who "are buddies with their children and see the school as the enemy."
"Then you've got Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook taking what used to be situations that happened on the playground and it's like pouring gasoline on a fire," he said. "It's combustible. Situations that used to be local explode and go community-wide."
Kinkel said Minnesota has some of the strictest data privacy laws in the nation, limiting what administrators can share.
"If you asked me right now if anybody filed a complaint against Park Rapids I would tell you I can neither confirm nor deny that," he said. "I can't even tell you if I'm looking into it because of our data privacy laws. Most of us are extraordinarily frustrated that we cannot share the work that we're doing on behalf of protecting kids. I'm so tired of a culture that always wants to find blame. We're going to blame the school, blame administrators. We're all to blame. I do this state wide, serving 340 districts. Every one of them are caught in this dilemma that we as citizens have put them in. We're not doing our jobs as parents. We're not partnering with the school. In fact, we're taking the school on."
Kinkel said he believes Park Rapids and Nevis school administrators "will do some real soul-searching because of all this attention."
"I trust they're going to take this to heart," he said. "But they're in a system that is rigged against them. They don't have enough resources, yet they're outed when they do take action and they're in trouble when they don't take action."
He said what's happening now is the first step - "to expose these things and to force the dialogue that I know is going on with the school board and the administrators right now."
Recourse for parents
Parents who have concerns about the safety of their schools can file a complaint with MSBA. Their ethics committee meets monthly to review complaints.
"My office is seeing an increase in the amount of complaints that are filed against school administrators," he said.
One of the ethic codes states, "School administrators must take reasonable action to protect students and staff from conditions harmful to staff and students."
"The key word is 'reasonable,'" he said.
He said he recommends parents to call his office (651-582-8236) first to talk to him about their concerns or leave a message so he can get back to them.
When bullying occurs, he said it is important parents have documentation. "We will not rely on your word only," he said. "We can't. You've got to have proof. Have your kid record it, find witnesses, other kids, other staff. Many districts are creating a culture where you can record it on your cell phone if you see things, a culture where you can report it anonymously."
Kinkel said 30 percent of parents feel the situation is resolved after talking to him and don't file a complaint.
"I know the most important thing in your life is your child," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to help you. I'm going to tell you what the law and our rules say so that you can make a fully informed decision."
Kinkel said 70 percent of callers follow through by filling out the complaint form on the MSBA website. "There's no statute of limitations and anyone can file a complaint with our board," he said. "Every written complaint we get, we look at. About 50 percent of those we dismiss because there's not enough evidence or it doesn't fall under the code of ethics. We try to find justice. You're weighing two things on and want to make sure they're weighed equally. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty."
When there is evidence there was an ethics violation, Kinkel said that leads to an independent investigation. "I do 120 investigations a year," he said. "Our job is not hiring and firing. Only the school board can do that. Our board only has control over licensing."
Kinkel said alternative schools are another option for parents.
"As this issue gets bigger, I think you will see more of the home-school movement increasing, the charter school movement," he said.
Parents, schools working together
Kinkel said some school districts form a disciplinary committee as part of the board to deal with these issues, going into closed session when necessary for data privacy.
He said when he works with districts, the first question he asks is what kind of school they want. "You have to start with that," he said. "What does safety mean? As a community, if we're going to say it's gotten out of hand and the bullies are winning, and we have to bring back some balance, then you better support these administrators when they make tough decisions because, by law, we still have to educate these kids. We can't give up on them. Some would suggest for those kids who are too violent, who haven't worked through the trauma and they're not ready for a classroom that maybe some of those hybrid, online environments are better for them."
Kinkel said parents need to take responsibility for teaching their children values and that character training starts in the home. He has seen districts establish a parent academy. "I learned my character at home. If you don't know how, the school will teach parents how to teach character," he said.
Kinkel said training for parents on the bullying issue, along with research-based programming, could be part of the academy.
He said violence, including bullying, is a societal problem. "We always want the schools to fix it, and I'm not sure they can entirely," he said. "I think it starts in the home. It starts with parents. At the end of the day, we've got to peacefully co-exist, because we're going to work together some day. We have to look in the mirror as a society. It has to start with us."