Monthly Archives: September 2011

Slam books and Social media

Violence: intentional physical force, emotional torment, and abuse of power, whose purpose is to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Old Media – Slam books

A slam book is sheets of loose leaf paper stapled together with a construction paper cover. The name of a student is written at the top of each sheet.  I was first exposed to slam books in sixth grade. I didn’t know who made it – the homemade book  just showed up one day surrounded by an air of  secrecy.  I watched as it was quietly passed around, each girl who wanted to participate anonymously writing whatever she wanted about the different girls. You can imagine some of the adjectives used and the hurt feelings and damaged relationships they caused. My teacher got wind of it and confiscated the book. He warned that slam books were outlawed in our school and that this was the last he wanted to see of it. I give the teachers and administrators of my elementary school a lot of credit for taking such a tough stand against this form of social violence. Even back then they realized how mean and destructive a slam book was.

New Media – Facebook, cell phones, Twitter, IM and text messages

Unlike the slam books of my childhood, digital social media was not created for the purpose of hurting others. But electronic media have become a widespread outlet for meanness and cruelty. Young people are using the Internet to embarrass, demean, stalk, spread rumors, and bully others. The statistics are convincing, the language shocking, and the pressure to take part in digital abuse sizable. And absent clear guidelines for acceptable online behavior and clear avenues to get help, many young people become perpetrators and victims of this violent, bullying behavior.

AP and MTV partnered to conduct an online Digital Abuse Study between August 18 and 31, 2011. Findings were based on interviews with 1,355 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. The study found that 76% of 14-24 year-olds feel that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age.

The types of online abuse they experience include:

  • Sexting of nude photos and sexually explicit messages
  • Digital dating abuse where one partner uses electronic media to exercise control over the other
  • Spreading rumors and intentional untruths
  • Forwarding messages intended as private
  • Discrimination and hurtful slurs directed toward peers especially those who are overweight, LGBT, African-American, women, Muslim, and immigrants. (Visit the study for the words commonly used online.)

Noteworthy Findings:

  • 71% of respondents said people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person.
  • A majority of the study participants exposed to digital abuse found it deeply unsettling.
  • Those who have sexted are four times as likely to have considered suicide than those who have not sexted (20% vs. 5%).


The most disconcerting aspect of this phenomenon is the attitude held by 46% of those surveyed that it is okay to use discriminatory language if you make it clear you are just kidding, and the attitude held by 54% that it is okay to use such language with friends because they know that you don’t mean it. Thinking name calling, teasing, and demeaning others is okay because it’s supposedly done in fun is one of the most prevalent and wrong-headed justifications young people have for intentionally hurting one another. They are assaults against your vulnerabilities intended to throw you off balance and diminish your sense of personal power.

The Good News

But there is also some good news. Projects like MTV’s “A Thin Line” campaign and schools’ cyber-bullying prevention efforts that empower young people and stop the spread of digital abuse seem to be having an impact. Sexting to strangers is down, awareness of the ramifications of online indiscretions has increased, 51% of those who saw someone being mean online would intervene (up from 47% in 2009), and young people are using a variety of strategies to stop cyber-bullying, including going to adults for help.


Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.

5 Essentials = 10 times the student learning


I like the work coming out of  the *Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). They use both long- and short-term action research approaches in the study of important educational issues such as dropout rates, social promotion, and school safety. These studies are intended to help educators all over the world make informed decisions on policies and practices that directly affect their students.  


I also like their work because they take school climate seriously, not just because of the current attention on bullying-prevention, but because their research shows that school climate is one of five critical factors affecting student achievement, and that relationships are the foundation for how secure and capable students feel.

How safe do you feel?

In their May 2011 report, “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization,” the CCSR looked at the factors affecting how safe students and adults feel in their schools. As we might expect, students from high-crime, high-poverty (disadvantaged) areas tended to feel less safe.

But the most revealing and promising finding was that students and adults felt safer in disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships than they felt in advantaged schools with low-quality relationships. The power of positive, caring relationships among students, families, the community, and school staff trumped the expected negative social effects of crime and poverty! This finding has a dramatic impact on where we choose to focus our efforts to improve student achievement.

Critical Factors

The CCSR has now released its Five Essentials School Reports.  Based on 15 years of research data, they identified five factors that matter most for student learning. The climate of the school and the relationship between the school and its families and community again rise to prominence.

The Five Essentials:

  • Ambitious instruction (classes are challenging and engaging)
  • Learning climate (the school is safe, demanding and supportive)
  • Instructional leadership (the principal works with teachers to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Professional capacity (teachers collaborate to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Family and community ties (the entire staff involves families and communities to advance student learning)

The finding that schools that are strong on three or more of these essentials were 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more of the essentials should grab our attention and help us focus our efforts. Once again it’s all about relationships and good teaching:

Caring teachers + Engaging instruction = Motivated students + Safe school climate

*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.

“Students say best teachers relate to them, make them think.” Is this news?

As I was online looking through the local news about the record-breaking flooding in Binghamton, NY where I used to live, this unrelated headline from September 4, 2011 caught my eye.

Broome-area students say best teachers relate to them, make them think

‘It’s nice when you can talk to a teacher, when it’s interactive’

It seems with the first day of school approaching, a Binghamton Press reporter interviewed area high school students to get their perspective on what makes a good teacher.

They found that students agree with the American Psychological Association teaching module report, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Supply Essential Support for Learning” and this quote from Sara Rimm-Kaufman, author of the APA module:

“Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional and academic needs.”

The APA module noted a positive student-teacher relationship shared these characteristics:

  • Teachers show their pleasure, that they enjoy their students.
  • Teachers interact in a responsive and respectful manner.
  • Teachers offer help by answering students’ questions in a timely manner and offering support that matches the children’s needs in achieving academic and social objectives.
  • Teachers help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
  • Teachers know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students’ backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.

Pair these positive relationship-based traits with exceptional instructional skills and knowledge of the content, and we have all we could ask for from a teacher.

Good teaching + Caring Relationships = Better Behaving Students + Higher Academic Achievement

I trust this is not news to most parents and educators. Specific personal and professional competencies are necessary for success in any field – sales, health care, construction, counseling, research, law enforcement, administration, running a restaurant. And beyond these field-specific skills and knowledge, success is a product of a strong work ethic and a commitment to continuous improvement, and depends on an ability to relate with your clients and co-workers. In teaching, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the relationship between teacher and student is the critical factor for success, the foundation for everything that happens in the classroom.

People commonly talk about the culture and climate of their workplace – the norms that drive behavior, the way they are treated, and how it feels to work there. Why? Because how we feel in a certain situation and with certain people matters a great deal to us. We feel more secure and work harder for those who respect and care for us and who have earned our respect.

When we apply this premise to students in a school, its meaning is magnified by the expectation of society and families for students to respect authority, and by the potential for abuse when you have such an age and power differential.  But it is also magnified by the beliefs and practices of the individual adults who work with our children. In no endeavor, other than parenting, is the relationship between the provider and recipient as critical and delicate as it is between teacher and student.

So to answer my question, no it isn’t news that students do better with teachers who relate to, respect, and challenge them, but it does bear repeating until every adult who interacts with children internalizes the message and molds their behavior accordingly.

Does being gay mean being bullied?

Odds are it does. Students are more likely to be bullied if they are seen as different in a negative way. It could be their race or ethnicity, size or weight, lack of social skills or athletic ability, or their special education needs – just about any characteristic that sets a student apart makes them a target for those who bully.

But the group most widely targeted for emotional and physical violence are students who are, or who are perceived as being, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT). When a federally protected group such as this is bullied it becomes the more serious charge of harassment, hate driven behavior that infringes on the group’s civil rights.

Consider this grim statistic:

90% of the 7,261 middle and high school lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students surveyed reported experiencing harassment at school in the past year. (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network Survey 2009)

Do you know what school life is really like for your LGBT students?  How aware are staff and parents of the issues surrounding the harassment of LGBT students? Could this statistic, and the many others that support the prevalence of harassment, apply to the way your students are treated on the buses, in your halls, gyms, cafeterias, bathrooms, locker rooms, and classrooms?

Why not ask the adults and students in your school community? Surveys designed to measure the state of the climate of the school, especially those online, can be completed anonymously. A good place to start looking is at where you can browse 33 assessment scales that measure bullying, victimization, perpetration, and by-stander experiences.

Another way to analyze the factors affecting how a certain group of students is treated in your school is to ask a group of teachers, parents, and students to complete a force field analysis like the one below. This process allows you to take a thoughtful and honest look at the climate and culture of your school to identify what is helping and what is hindering reaching your goal:

“We treat all students with respect and concern regardless of their sexual identity.”

Use a simple T-Chart to brainstorm

Forces PROMOTING Our Success         Forces PREVENTING Our Success

With the information you gathered from surveys and from the force field analysis, you have a good idea what school feels like to your LGBT students. And most importantly, you now know what you must do – intentionally and systematically – to make your school a violence-free and positive experience for all of your students.

McInerney Murder Mistrial

It had to be a slam dunk, didn’t it?  He shot and killed his classmate in front of a room full of students and the defense never contested that he was guilty of the killing.  But yesterday the jury told the judge that they were deadlocked with no chance of reaching a unanimous vote.

Brandon McInerney was barely 14 years old when he killed Larry King.  Three years later he was tried as an adult, as allowed in California by a 1995 law that changed the cutoff from 16 to 14.  To a handful of the jurors, Brandon McInerney was guilty of  either first or second degree murder in the death of Larry King. But seven of the jurors wanted to convict Brandon of voluntary manslaughter. It’s no wonder they were a hung jury: When it comes to children, people’s reactions are influenced by many factors, including our cultural belief that adults should protect children from violence, and their personal attitudes and experiences. We have compassion for an abused child and in this case it appears the jury thought that both the murdered child and the murderer were victims.

Trying Brandon as an adult made the jury’s job more difficult. They had to decide which of these adult charges, with very adult consequences, applied:

  • The most serious charge was first degree murder, which California defines as the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.  Malice aforethought is the conscious mental determination to commit an unlawful act. While the seven jurors may have believed Brandon did premeditate and have a plan to intentionally murder Larry that day, they also may have believed the mandatory 25 years to life sentence carried by a first degree murder conviction was inappropriate in this situation. And if they convicted him of  first-degree murder and a hate crime, the sentence would escalate to mandatory life without parole.
  • Second-degree murder is any murder not defined as first-degree murder. To be considered second-degree murder the homicide must be intentional and with malice, but not premeditated or planned. It is also not a killing committed in the “heat of passion.” In California a second degree murder conviction carries a 15 years to life sentence. Again, given the particulars of the case, the possibility of life imprisonment, with little chance for rehabilitation, did not sit well with many on the jury.
  • Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the homicide is committed without malice aforethought, and is instead a spontaneous act arising during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. As compared to first and second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 3, 6, or 9 years; a life sentence was not an option.

Charged to keep an open mind and to consider all the evidence presented, they heard testimony of warning signs of escalating friction between the two boys and missed opportunities where school officials should have intervened. Adults had a chance to prevent the tragedy and they failed. With all the emotional nuances of the case, it isn’t hard to see why the jury deadlocked.

But was the killing premeditated first degree murder? I believe the evidence proved it was. Brandon told others he was going to kill Larry, and the next day he stole a gun from his house, hid it in his backpack, went to school, sat in the same room as Larry King, and after a few minutes got up and stood behind him, and then shot two bullets into the back of Larry’s head. At the time Larry was not bothering or even interacting with Brandon. There was no argument, no provocation, no verbal taunting that would trigger “a heat of the moment” homicide.

Yet seven of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter. Why would they do this? We already mentioned aversion to condemning him to spend a good part or all of his life in prison, but Brandon had other factors working in his favor: he was white, good-looking and boyish, not at all threatening; he killed a gay student portrayed as a flamboyant sexual predator who harassed him; testimony that he suffered great emotional and physical harm at the hands of his father, the same person who taught his sons to believe that gays were an aberration not worthy of respect. Brandon was abused at home and bothered in school by a homosexual, and the jurors felt compassion for him. They could see the  tragedy through his eyes.

Did the jurors feel the same compassion for Larry, an openly gay eighth grader who sometimes wore make up and dressed in girl’s clothes?  A child of color who had his own share of family issues and lived in foster care? A youngster who was teased and harassed because of his sexuality? Like Brandon, Larry had a tough life and was victimized in school. Did the jurors feel compassion for Larry? Could they see the tragedy through his eyes?

I can’t help but wonder if the circumstances were reversed and Larry King, the gay student, shot and killed Brandon McInerney, the straight student, if there would have been a  hung jury.

See related posts.