CLEVELAND - The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to school superintendents around the state today, urging them to adopt proactive bullying prevention plans. The ACLU’s letter comes after several months of increased incidents of students across Ohio and the nation bullied by others. In particular, the ACLU encouraged schools to implement policies on how to address bullying when reported, education programs to prevent bullying, and comprehensive training for staff on how to handle bullying when it arises.

ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link said, “Schools must provide a safe, healthy environment for children to learn and express themselves. Oftentimes, young people simply do not understand the effect their words can have on another child. While students should be held accountable for their actions, we must focus on educating them in order to prevent bullying from happening in the first place.”

Rittman School District, near Akron, has held public meetings for concerned parents and students after one young student committed suicide in February 2011. His parents claim that his death was the result of bullying. In addition, two lawsuits are pending against Mentor School District, near Cleveland, after two students committed suicide in recent years. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in April 2011 that the parents of one student should pursue their lawsuit in federal court rather than state court.

“The growth of technology has made addressing bullying more complex,” Link added. “Cyberbullying should be discouraged, but schools must be careful not to stifle students’ First Amendment rights. Schools should also resist implementing harsh zero-tolerance policies that often punish the bully and victim, and treat all infractions equally, no matter how great or small.”

“To truly prevent bullying, schools must adopt a plan that properly balances discipline and proactive education. Students must know that bullying is unacceptable, but relying only on punishment fails to prevent bullying and providing young people with the tools to cope with bullying,” concluded Link.

In 2006, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 276, which prohibited bullying, expanded training for educators, and required school districts to report all bullying incidents. News reports from the Columbus Dispatch in 2009 showed some area schools had not fully complied with the law, and have not effectively implemented these changes.