Monday, May 17, 2010

A CFCC Truancy Court Program Perspective on Bullying in Schools

The local news has focused on bullying after a young girl reportedly attempted suicide in a Baltimore City School as a result of this torment. Even Dr. Alonso, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, has written an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun weighing in on the topic. It is a subject with which we at CFCC are all too familiar, as it often is identified as a cause of truancy for a number of children in our Truancy Court Program.

Truancy does not always involve the act of “playing hooky.” A child may also stay home from school in order to stay safe and avoid harassment at school. For decades, researchers have warned schools, families, and communities that bullying can lead to truancy. One student (or more) constantly physically and/or emotionally harasses another student and, as a result, the targeted child develops a complex. In response to lower self-esteem, confirmation of insecurities, fear of harassment at school, and/or concern for physical safety, the targeted child does what s/he can to stay home from school.

Parents and teachers may be unaware of such bullying because children may fear an increase of harassment if it is discovered that they have tattled.  As a possible result, a bullied child may play sick for many days in a row to avoid school.  A parent may not understand the real reason the child is staying home from school.  The school, on the other hand, may think the parent negligently is allowing his or her child to miss too much school.  While the parent gets frustrated by the school’s questioning and telephone calls, and the school loses faith in the parent’s intent to send his child to school, the child holds this secret close to his heart and continues to suffer in fear of attending school.

First Lady of Maryland and District Court Judge Catherine
Curran O'Malley (left) and law student fellow Stacy D.
Copeland (top right) listen to a TCP student during a
session at Barclay Elementary/Middle in Baltimore
The question arises: What can be done?

There is no one answer to this question, but CFCC successfully has identified, addressed and resolved numerous bullying cases in its over six years of operating the Truancy Court Program.

With everyone at the table and the calm, caring, and confidential nature of the TCP, students can divulge the real reason for their absences.  This often comes to the complete surprise of the parents and/or schools.  Once this secret is revealed, the volunteer District or Circuit Court judge places the burden on the schools to investigate and address the situation.

In one instance, the school police have addressed the bullies directly, describing possible legal ramifications of bullying.  Though removal through suspension may seem like a plausible provisional fix, Dr. Alonso correctly points out that it is not a permanent solution because it does not address the root cause of the bullying.  The impetus behind the bully’s actions may reveal a need for further guidance and intervention, so a holistic approach, with confrontation and mediation among the students, the families, and the school, is essential.  Of course, as the Gilmor Elementary School third-grade student highlighted in the news could probably tell you, schools and parents must first listen to students.  The TCP is the type of setting in which such conversation occurs – where the parents and school officials listen to the students.  A resolution that all parties have had a role in crafting is the most effective way to stop bullying now and to prevent bullying in the future.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

CFCC and the ABA Family Law Section Co-Sponsor “Families Matter” Symposium

In the face of the daily barrage of news about celebrity divorces, bitter custody battles, and the fortunes that must be divided, we at the Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) are reminded of the millions of people who face an adversarial and divisive family law system during the most difficult periods of their lives. In an unprecedented collaboration, the American Bar Association (ABA) Family Law Section and CFCC are co-sponsoring an invitation-only symposium on June 24-25 at the University of Baltimore to address how to change family law practice and theory to minimize the harm done to families as they navigate the family justice system. The pairing between the ABA and CFCC is a natural partnership, given that CFCC’s mission and work focus on family justice system reform aimed at finding ways to resolve these family conflicts in a more therapeutic, holistic, less adversarial manner.

Many parents and children enter the family justice system already dealing with serious issues – drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, mental illness, poverty, debilitating illness, and grief, to name a few. The acrimonious nature of family law litigation, exacerbated when children are involved, compounds families’ existing problems. Any remnants of a family’s strength and cohesiveness are damaged irreparably as lawyers engage in protracted and divisive litigation.

The “Families Matter” symposium is a significant step forward to attempt to minimize these destructive consequences – a well-timed and much-needed response to the often insurmountable negative outcomes experienced by families and children involved in the justice system. Over the course of two days, attorneys, judges, academics, accountants, social workers, mediators, and others are convening to engage in an interdisciplinary, facilitated discussion about the practice of family law and its impact on families. Planners expect these conversations to result in a number of innovative ideas and plans to form the basis for a multi-year initiative.

We at CFCC are delighted and excited to partner with the ABA Family Law Section for this influential initiative. As we work together to change the practice of family law from an adversarial and divisive process to one that focuses on methods that aim to improve the lives of families and children, we plan to develop solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing our justice system today. All of us – families, children, communities, schools, employers, businesses – stand to benefit from this initiative.

We welcome and encourage your thoughts and contributions to this blog! Please join the conversation.