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Editor's note: This is part of The Daily Times' five-part series on bullying. The series started on Sunday, and the final installment will be published April 12.

FARMINGTON — While the New Mexico Public Education Department has policies in place for school districts to tackle bullying behavior, critics say they could be stronger and that pinpointing how to change behaviors could be the key to progress.

Officials wrote the first draft of the state statutes on bullying in 2006, said Leighann Lenti, deputy secretary for policy and programs for the state education department. It was updated last year to include cyberbullying prevention.

Lenti said the statute includes seven policies that each district must include in its bullying policies.

"It's really important so there is consistency across the state, so that the definitions aren't varying, so bullying means the same district to district," Lenti said.

Districts' bullying policies are required to prohibit bullying and cyberbullying, describe how districts train staff on cyberbullying and establish rules to communicate with parents, students and faculty about bullying and how to identify and prevent it.

Other policies include outlining the consequences of bullying, which must align with federal guidelines, and clarifying the responsibilities of educators when bullying arises.

"We need to do everything we can to ensure students have a safe place to learn," Lenti said.

But more needs to be done to hold school districts accountable for their bullying policies, said Amber Royster, executive director for Equality New Mexico, a nonprofit that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

The group is among several in the state — including the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, Santa Fe Mountain Center and Southwest Women's Law Center — that are leading the New Mexico Safe Schools Initiative. The multi-year advocacy and outreach effort aims to address issues like bullying and harassment.

Royster said the initiative examined the 2013 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to monitor health risk behaviors.

The initiative found that at least 50,000 incidents of bullying and harassment occur every year in New Mexico middle and high schools. About 10,300 middle and high school students miss school every month because they don't feel safe at school, the survey reported.

"We have no idea of even knowing where the problem areas are in our state when it comes to bullying and harassment," Royster said. "What we need is data on what are the nature of the incidents. Was it race-based? Was this person being bullied for being perceived (as) being gay or being perceived as trans(gender)? We need to get to that place so we can really meaningfully address issues, but we have to start at square one and we need to start collecting data."

Lenti said that while the state education department does not require data reporting, it works to ensure districts are following existing statutes.

"We want to strike the balance between equipping our districts for success and not killing them with burdensome reporting requirements," Lenti said. "That is something they have complained about in the past."

Every three years, the state education department reviews the bullying policies and programs of each school district. Lenti said that time period gives districts enough time to implement policies and see what works best.

Efforts in the latest legislative session to expand bullying policies met some resistance.

The Safe Schools for All Students Act, sponsored by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Carlos Vigil Memorial Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Jacob Candelaria, D-Bernalillo, and James E. Smith, R-Sandia Park, is awaiting Gov. Susana Martinez's signature.

Candelaria said he hopes Martinez will sign the bill, which would establish a five-member board to review grant applications and distribute funds to help public agencies, schools or nonprofits prevent, resolve and eradicate bullying.

"In the Legislature, there is strong recognition that bullying is problem in our schools, and we, as a community, should do something," Candelaria said.

While the state requires districts have bullying prevention programs in place, it does not provide funding for those programs.

The Safe Schools for All Students Act was drafted to improve how bullying and harassment is addressed. It asked the state education department to develop and enforce stricter rules for the implementation of bullying prevention policies and programs in the districts.

Candelaria said the Safe Schools act was a good piece of legislation that should have been enacted. It would have provided tools for schools to be held accountable once bullying is reported, he said.

Local efforts to confront bullying

Administrators for several San Juan County school districts have been updating their bullying prevention programs.

The first step to understanding bullying is determining the difference between a bullying incident and a conflict between two students, said Chuck Wallace, student assistance social worker at Farmington High School.

"Just because someone says, 'I'm being bullied,' does it really mean they are being bullied, or is it a conflict that is being perceived as bullying?" Wallace said.

Bullying is a situation in which a person has power over another and takes advantage of that person, Wallace said. A conflict arises when there is a disagreement between two people. Emotions take over, and one person tries to dominate another, sometimes escalating to violence, he said.

In the Aztec Municipal School District, Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said the administration has used information from its February community bullying prevention meeting to evaluate new programs to implement.

"What we realize is (that) prevention is a big piece, but not the only piece," Carpenter said. "What is even more important is the idea of empowerment."

Carpenter said the district is looking at implementing programs to empower students and parents when they see bullying. The district also plans to host another meeting later this month to discuss what steps to take next.

Improving all students' social skills and building resiliency were two topics Carpenter brought up repeatedly, saying it will take more than discipline to handle bullying behavior more effectively.

"We're so quick to deal with discipline of the bully. We also need to look at the symptoms of the bully," Carpenter said. "If we don't deal with what's causing the behavior and you don't correct the behavior, you're not getting down to the root causes of why that person is a bully."

Among the ideas the district is considering is including counseling as an option for bullies, rather than suspension or expulsion, Carpenter said.

Carpenter said efforts to extinguish bullying behavior will need to come from community leaders, students and their parents.

"We can no longer say that bullying is a school issue," Carpenter said. "That is why we have to reach out."

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.

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