Bullying Investigations Pt 3

Bullying Investigations Part 3 of a 3 part Newsletter Series

Complaint Intake: Dealing with Details

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law, Educational Consultant

This six-part McGrath E-Newsletter series is based on information from School Bullying: Investigating Complaints, one of three onsite trainings created for school districts, available through McGrath Training Systems. The E-Newsletter series covers important facets of investigating bullying complaints.

School Site Steps
Each school should have an individual who is appointed and publicized as the site’s Complaint Manager, whose job is to receive reports of suspected bullying and harassment. The Site Complaint Manager receives the incident report that has been completed by an employee who has either observed the behavior or received a complaint about it. Make sure your teachers and staff know the procedures for reporting a bullying incident. Click here to download the suggested Incident Report Form.

After the Complaint Manager receives the written referral regarding the incident, the next step is to bring in the student who may have been bullied and get his or her statement on a complaint form. It is important that you take the complaint directly from the student, not just from a third party. The complaint form should elicit the following information:

  • When did the incident happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • A description of what happened in as specific, objective and concrete terms as possible.
  • How many times did it happen?
  • Who saw it happen?
  • What is being requested by the complainant?

Click here to download a Bullying Complaint Intake Form.

If the victim cannot read and/or write English proficiently
Individuals who are not proficient in English or have a disability that limits their ability to read or write must be accommodated. You may provide a translator who can read each question to the person in his or her first language, then give the person time to write the answers. Be sure that your documentation includes the name of any secretary or translator who participates in the complaint process. Alternatively, arrange for a secretary to take dictation or record what the person says and then have it transcribed. Ask the questions exactly as they are written on the form and have the responses written down word for word.

When the Complaint Form is complete, have the person read it and sign it, or read it back to them and then have them sign it. Read it in short paragraphs and ask after each section: “Would you like to make any changes to that section?” Have them initial each paragraph as you proceed.

Complaint intake with very young students
Children aged 10 or under are too young fill out their own Complaint Form. With these students, the Complaint Manager should ask the questions and fill out the form, then read it back to the student as described above and have the Complaint Form signed.

Avoid using leading questions. Leading questions are those that require a yes or no answer and suggest what the answer should be within the question itself. For example, “Did he hit you on the head?” and “Were you afraid when he came up to you?” are both leading questions. A non-leading question is, “How did you feel when he came up to you?”

Informing the parents
The most prudent practice is to inform the parents before interviewing a student. Parents often are angered when their child has been questioned without their knowledge, especially if it is by someone with whom they are unfamiliar – a central office employee or someone from another school site, for example.

Should you audiotape the child’s answers?
It is a good idea to audiotape the conversation, as it provides a record of the interview. Ask the child’s permission, and be sure to record his/her response authorizing the audiotape on the tape itself. It is doubly important to be cautious about your questioning techniques when an audio (or video) record is made of the session. At this stage, ask only the questions set out on the Complaint Form. In subsequent lawsuits it is often claimed that the way in which the complaint was investigated was faulty. An audiotape provides more information to validate what was said, but also more information with which to criticize the process used.

Completing the conversation with the complainant
Give the complainant an information packet. The packet should include:

  • A one-page sheet detailing time lines and procedures used to process complaints, taken from the policies and regulations in place at your district.
  • A copy of the complaint procedures from your student bullying and harassment policies.

Informal or formal complaints
The written nature of a complaint does not make it formal. Informal and formal procedures are a matter of individual school board policy. Understand the school district policy regarding the processing of complaints and follow it as it is written. From a legal standpoint, it is highly problematic to have “oral” complaints for which you have never recorded the substance of the complaint and its disposition in writing. If your policy does not allow for documenting all complaints, consider changing it.

Deciding who investigates
Deciding who should investigate the situation is a critical step in the management of the incident. One of the key concerns is whether a conflict of interest exists. A conflict exists when a person has a duty to more than one person or organization and therefore cannot do justice to the potentially conflicting interests of both parties.

An impartial, unbiased investigation must occur. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest must be avoided. Is the accused a best friend of the daughter of the investigator? Does the investigator play golf with the complainant’s father? Situations like these lend themselves to someone saying there is a conflict of interest.

To avoid the appearance or likelihood of a conflict of interest, another local site administrator or someone from another school site should assume responsibility for the investigation. Otherwise, the complaint manager may proceed with the investigation.

Part 4 of our Series on Bullying Investigation will address Getting Started on the Right Foot.

Complete this form to order a copy of “School Bullying: Tools for Avoiding Harm and Liability,” by Mary Jo McGrath, published by Corwin Press, 2007.

Review Bullying Investigations E-Newsletter Part 1

For additional information on the McGrath Anti-Bullying and Harassment Curriculum contact us at 800 733-1638 or e-mail info@mcgrathinc.com.
McGrath Training Systems
631 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, CA 93103 | phone: (800) 733-1638 | www.mcgrathinc.com

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