PHS’ s HIB self-assessment

April, 2024
Harry Dweck

PHS’s last publicly reported score for its harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) self-assessment is from 2022. It received a 46/78, six points short of state requirements. The assessment is reviewed annually by school administration and evaluates the school’s preventative HIB programming, implementation of NJ policy, and overall climate for reporting concerning behavior.

To students, though, this score may not be so surprising. In many ways, our school presents a hostile environment — hurtful rumors spread quickly and jokes with racism, sexism or homophobia are part of normal conversation. The most common type of HIB this year is physical confrontation stemming from name calling, according to Diana Lygas, the PHS Dean of Students.

This predicament is not normal. The truth is that our school is faced with a significantly worse environment than neighboring high schools — presuming the accuracy of school self-assessments. The West Windsor-Plainsboro high schools scored 75/78 on their HIB self-assessment, while Montgomery High School received a 77/78.

PHS’s main strategy to combat bullying is by reporting instances of HIBs. The only HIB-related category that PHS gave itself full points on the self-assessment was proficiency in HIB reporting. In fact, PHS’s HIB lawyer, Alicia D’Anella, has even called our increase in HIB reports “not a bad thing” in a 2023 information session.

“The more we learn about [HIB] ... the more we can spot it,” said D’Anella. “So sometimes an increase in reporting is indicative that we’re doing better.”

But the amount of HIB reports at PHS doesn’t correlate with new reporting policies or an expansion of the definition of HIB. Instead, there are consistently high levels across many years, excluding COVID-19. There were an average of 24 HIB reports from 2014 to 2020, 26 last year, and 24 this year (so far). This points to a systemic issue. In a community dedicated to improving student life, what matters most is preventing bullying from happening in the first place. Documenting HIBs isn’t a bad thing on its own; it just doesn’t change things much.

There are a few explanations for why PHS’s current reliance on HIB reporting to address bullying isn’t working. For one, our reporting system is guided by a faulty principle. The NJ Department of Education mandates that the Board of Education operate on an “impact over intent” policy. This means that instances of HIB are often evaluated based on the reactions (impact) of the victim, not the intent of the perpetrator. In New Jersey, if one student harms another student, but the victim does not express a strong reaction, the perpetrator will often receive mild punishment. Naturally, the perpetrator may be left with the misconception that their actions were not harmful or even acceptable. The “impact over intent” approach also doesn’t take into account the fact that victims might feel pressured to downplay their experience for fear of retribution. Moreover, reporting and disciplining one individual might improve their behavior but will have little impact beyond that. In short, despite the long-winded and time-intensive HIB reporting protocol, the overall school climate is not being transformed.

Of course, many of the shortcomings of our system aren’t entirely the fault of our administrators or guidance counselors — a lot of PHS’s reporting policy is decided at a state level. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t have other initiatives. Other schools, like Montgomery High School, have already recognized that given all the problems with NJ’s reporting policies, other measures are needed. In 2022, Montgomery High School scored 15/15 for their HIB related Programs and Approaches, and 6/6 for HIB Curriculum and Instruction. Meanwhile, the PHS self-assessment proves we have a long way to go; PHS received a 5/15 in the HIB Programs and Approaches category and a 3/6 in the HIB Curriculum and Instruction category.

John McMichael, the director of student counseling services and the district’s anti-bullying coordinator recognizes PHS’s weakness.

“It’s one thing to be reactive, ... to handle HIB allocations when they come up. But we do need to do a better job on being proactive, [we] have the data right there showing that,” McMichael said.

PHS could start to improve by increasing accessibility. Most HIB policies are hidden in large documents with a lot of jargon or in long, dry videos. Nowhere on the district’s anti-bullying page is there a clear overview of school procedure. PHS should also have recurring mandatory sessions throughout the year for students that clearly outlines what an HIB is, what to do when involved in an HIB, and how the district handles them. If students are consistently reminded of what qualifies as an HIB and what the consequences are before they are involved in an investigation, they would probably be less inclined to be involved in the first place. In this way, PHS will also send a clear message to students that bullying is morally wrong.

No matter what new policies are implemented, fundamentally, we need initiatives that will bring about a shift in school culture.

“Is it too strong to say that people forgot how to interact peacefully? I don’t know,” McMichael said, aptly highlighting this need for change.