Bay Area Reporter: Audit states bullying concerns

August 29, 2013

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Equality California Executive Director John O'Connor, shown here at a luncheon in Sacramento last week, said more leadership is needed from the state Department of Education.(Photo: Matthew Whitley)

A report from the California state auditor says that school districts aren't doing enough to check whether the anti-harassment policies they have established are effective.

Auditors behind the report, "School Safety and Nondiscrimination Laws: Most Local Educational Agencies Do Not Evaluate the Effectiveness of Their Programs, and the State Should Exercise Stronger Leadership," visited three agencies: the Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento City unified school districts.

The San Francisco Unified School District wasn't one of the agencies examined, but data suggest the district's efforts to prevent bullying and harassment are working.

Kevin Gogin, program manager for the San Francisco district's school health programs, said survey data from the 2012-13 school year, which is being reviewed, looks "promising."

Based on responses to questions about whether students have heard terms like "faggot," "dyke," or "that's so gay," "We have actually made some improvements" at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, said Gogin.

According to data from 2010-11, the most recent statistics available, 73 percent of the district's fifth graders who were surveyed said they had heard students using terms or phrases such as "fag" or "that's so gay."

Gogin, who wasn't able to provide specific figures from the new data yet, said even though progress is being made, more needs to be done.

"I think it's something we have to keep working on," he said. "We have to keep looking at how we can be consistent with our education around respect and anti-bullying issues, as well as the consistent following of the protocols."

He estimated the new data would be available by the end of September.

State findings

According to the state report, most school districts "have policies and programs that comply with recent changes" to discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying laws.

However, according to the summary, none of the districts "maximized their data" to see how effective their prevention efforts have been, and all six school sites reviewed at the three districts "did not adequately document complaints," among other findings. This limits "their ability to track complaint frequency, volume, and outcomes," said the auditors.

Carolyn Laub is executive director of the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which works with gay and allied student clubs.

"The audit is really an important moment for the state and for local districts to look more closely at what can they be doing to ensure the state laws that have been passed are being fully implemented, to ensure that LGBT students and all students have the opportunity to go to schools that are safe and where they can succeed," said Laub.

In a statement about the report, Equality California Executive Director John O'Connor said, "A majority of faults found with schools and districts can be addressed through stronger leadership from the Department of Education. We call on the Department of Education to step up and ensure that districts statewide have access to resources, trainings and evaluations of previous policies to guarantee student success."

Gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) requested an audit of the state's school safety and non-discrimination laws last year.

"Though California has moved in a progressive direction to pass laws to protect our youth from bullying and harassment, the audit highlights the gap between policy making and the implementation of effective bullying prevention programs in our schools," Lara stated August 20, the day the report was released. "To ensure we maximize our efforts, I will be working through the interim on legislation to implement the auditor's recommendations," which include having the state prioritize appeals, "with due haste."

In his written response to the auditor's report, Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state Department of Education, said, in part, "It is concerning" that challenges including "staffing limitations," "fluctuations of staff resources," and "the various demands of special interest groups" weren't identified in the report.

In a separate statement, Zeiger said, "Although not mentioned in this report, California has made significant progress in addressing negative school behavior despite the impacts of ongoing budget cuts and staff reductions.

"Nevertheless," he added, his agency "acknowledges the auditor's concerns and will continue our work to build and reinforce a positive school climate throughout the state. Our aim is to take both a top-down and bottom-up approach to the issue – engaging students to focus their time, attention, and energy on learning, while working with school districts to implement bullying prevention strategies at the state and local level."

The Bay Area Reporter sought comment from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, but his staff would not make him available for an interview.

To view the full report, go to