In Bullying in Schools, School Life

The Ambiguity of School Records and Bullying

School Violence Statistics

There was once a time when school records were kept while a student was in school and then purged a few years after as the student progressed and moved on. This removal had a lot to do with the fact that records were paper in manila folders and that took up space. Schools have hundreds of students to keep track of each year, so each graduating class means a pile of papers that is no longer that useful. Granted, there’s a few files that may need to be pulled for reference, but the majority are dead space. So schools would pack them up and eventually destroy them. Then came the age of software and the Internet.

Today’s school record system, particularly with high school records, is an entirely different world. Much of the data involved is now recorded and saved electronically and saved in shared databases. As a result, permanent school records are far more stable than they used to be and long-lasting.

High school records include a number of different documents. They include high school transcripts, health records, discipline and behavior records, and anything the school administration decides to hold onto in a student’s file. How to get at this information depends on the school and school district’s policy with regards to records. While some agencies will provide the records to parents, or produce them under public record act laws, private schools can be far more restrictive. Parents often don’t think about records access when they sign a child into a school system, so they can be surprised by the rules “they agreed to” after the fact.

Clearly, records can be obtained through legal matters but that sort of thing takes a lawsuit and the formal discovery process, which most parents are not going to go through just to see every record in a student file. And it doesn’t happen right away as many schools have access to government lawyers if they are part of the public school system, which means cases can take a long time before action occurs due to legal maneuvering.

When it comes to bullying, these records would fall into the behavior and discipline category. However, the amount detail involved depends on a number of factors, not the least of which include the teacher involved as well as the discretion of the principal of the school. Both the teacher and principal have a large amount of discretion about the details that go into bullying case document and report. There is no standard form per se; each school district and institution will have have its own process. In many cases, bullying is not treated as its own issue. It gets lumped into another category, such as behavioral problems or anti-social activity or fighting even.

Bullying records that are retained can stay for a long time in a school record system. In fact, educators as well as law enforcement have found such records to be significantly helpful in making cases for problem teens to be removed from regular schools’ systems and transferred to special schools for delinquents, away from the main population. This sort of record-keeping creates a quasi-legal paper file that follows a student to graduation and remains in schools files long after a student is gone.

Again, however, the detail of the records can vary from school to school. Some will have quite a bit of documentation while others barely touch on the matter and simply say a child gets in a lot of fights or arguments. That detail then sits, depending when it will be needed. Even archived records can still be retrieved now in large system schools. Smaller schools will likely be the ones that don’t have records that last as long.

Why the variation? Teachers are often in one of two groups: “lifers” who will stay teaching one class grade their entire career without change, and “movers” who are trying to move up in the school career ladder and get promoted. The “lifers” often provide more detail but it tends to be biased; they make their judgment calls on a student, right or wrong, and then everything is framed accordingly from then on. These are the teachers students remember later on as having it out for them.

The “movers” are younger teachers who look to supervisors and principals to tell them how to perform. They won’t get out of line or challenge an issue because they want to promote quickly. So if a principal gets involved and dictates that a case should have a certain type of documentation, the “mover” teacher will follow the lead instead of making an independent call.

The principal is in a position that is fraught with conflicts of interests. On the one hand she wants to see problems removed as quickly as possible. A smooth-running school is the ideal. On the other hand, the principal also has to contend with all the legalities of children, rights, lawyers, school policies, school boards and more. Those elements don’t always align in proper documentation of issues. Because a principal often has the final say of what goes into a student’s record, they have the ultimate power to decide if the details are accurate, expansive or scant in a given record.

So while bullying incidents may be present in school records, that doesn’t mean the data is accurate, comprehensive, or accessible. While the possibility is there, the actual context of the student file is in a subjective state. So what may be highly-detailed in one school district can be barely a mention of an issue in another one. What does it all matter? That depends on how the information is used and how it is preserved. Again, is predominantly educator administrators and law enforcement that have the most use for the information. It’s primary benefit is to build a case of a pattern. Various laws restrict such use, but they are wide open barns for those who are creative in circumventing such rules.

So, in short, bullying records in student files are as permanent as they could ever be, and they run the gamut of being useless to being extremely damaging for a person’s life as a former student. Parents and the students themselves can try to get them expunged, but in most cases this requires the help of a lawyer and a lawsuit. Those seeking files are better off trying to find out what kind of records are actually retained in a school system and then managing how to deal with that information existing somewhere. In most cases, school records don’t matter; they become a thing of the past. But once in a while they come up, and the inconsistency of the modern school system become apparent.

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