Jack Padilla committed suicide in February of 2019 at age 15. Beginning in second grade, Jack experienced bullying at school. As he grew older, the bullying only became more vicious. It wasn’t until after he passed that his family discovered just how dark the interactions with his fellow classmates had become.
“After we were able to get his phone open and read the messages,” explains Rick Padilla, Jack’s father and the Suicide Prevention Administrator for the City of Denver, “[there was] a particular group of students that wanted to come over and shoot him. One young lady told Jack, the day before he died, that Home Depot was having a sale on ropes.”
The bullying and comments were reported to the police department and a criminal investigation followed. After the investigation, no criminal culpability was found, leading Padilla to sit down with the District Attorney’s office to discuss reporting. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t agree with the outcome. I respect the process, but I don’t agree with the outcome, so I’ll do something legislative.”
The outcome is what really inspired Padilla to create Jack and Cait’s Law, a law that requires the Colorado Department of Education to use a stakeholder process when updating the bullying prevention and education policy, stating parents of students who have been bullied must be included in the process.
“That was what was catalytic for me, because I think the police department failed and the school failed to investigate the bullying leading to my son’s death. Not to say my son took his life because of the bullying, but as I’ve learned about suicide, it’s a complex issue and there’s a lot of chapters, and that certainly is one of them for students,” says Padilla.
While stopping and preventing bullying from happening requires all of us to come together, what are our schools doing to help stop this from happening? How much can they intervene?
The School’s Role
“Colorado schools have local control, which essentially just means that every school district can have its own policies. There’s a state law that every school district has to have a bullying prevention policy. What goes in [the policy] can be tweaked a little bit based on the needs of the district, or what makes the district unique,” says Adam Collins, Ph.D., Statewide Bullying Prevention Manager of the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).
The CDE provides a Model Policy that serves as a guide for school districts, in terms of what the best practices are for bullying prevention. The Model Policy includes what bullying is and is not, which is crucial in helping teachers take the right steps in intervening or preventing bullying.
At the beginning of each school year, administrators will explain to students what behaviors are expected of them while at school. The goal is to create an environment where every student feels protected.
“Our hope is that if a school is seeing bullying, maybe in the hallways because it’s a really unstructured area, then they take steps to address it. For example, having teachers stand outside of their doorway and have positive interactions with the kids in the hallway as they’re walking from class to class. Just having the teachers physically present can decrease the likelihood of it to happen,” says Dr. Collins.
He also notes that one of the biggest things a teacher can do is to stop the bullying when it is happening. “If you think of the alternative and the teacher doesn’t do anything, it essentially just implies that the behavior is okay and creates a negative school culture,” he explains.
Reports of Bullying
Many parents feel that there isn’t enough being done in order to protect the students from bullying. Dru Ahlborg, Executive Director of the Bullying Recovery Resource Center, shares that her son was relentlessly bullied for years and the schools didn’t solve the problem.
The Center was created from experience, and through her work with the organization, Ahlborg helps hold the schools responsible and assists and advocates for the families with the aim of putting an end to bullying.
To help strengthen prevention efforts, CDE’s Model Policy includes a flowchart for administrators to follow in order to appropriately respond to the bullying once it has been reported.
Dr. Collins explains, “The first thing is they always make sure that the students are safe, because that’s the highest priority. From there, you go into doing the investigation, so understanding something that is actually bullying, because if not, then maybe you’re looking at some other discipline policy. In the flowchart, you can kind of see what we suggest schools can be doing. That includes everything from talking to all the kids who are involved and anybody who witnessed it, and notifying families. There are a lot of different pieces that go into it.”
If support is needed, the school will provide the appropriate support to the student who is experiencing bullying. Colorado also offers the I Matter program to youth, which provides students with up to six free therapy sessions.
Work to Be Done
With so much progress being made, there’s still plenty of work to be done in terms of creating environments where our students can be protected from bullying behaviors.
Padilla feels that by having more accountability on the schools, more timeliness in conducting the investigations, and some due process for the aggrieved parties will help to move us into the right direction.
Unfortunately, bullying is happening everywhere, and a lot of the time, we aren’t even aware of it. Holding each other accountable, reporting what we see, extensive training, enforcing positive behavior among students, and practicing empathy can move us one step closer to preventing bullying in our schools.