Category Archives: School Safety

Part Three: Say no to zero-tolerance, and yes to conflict resolution

If zero-tolerance is:

  • Ineffective (one-size fits all and does not teach better behavior)
  • Counterproductive (escalates the school suspension to drop out to prison pipeline)
  • Sometimes even foolish (suspending a first grader for hitting another student)

And since misbehavior and conflicts are:

  • An inevitable part of everyday life in schools, homes, and communities
  • No longer handled with automatic student suspensions and expulsions 

What can we do instead?

  • Teach positive social behavior at all developmental levels
  • Teach basic conflict resolution skills K-12
  • Provide students with constructive options to resolve conflicts before they turn into a crisis
  • Treat a crisis as an opportunity to learn

There is so much we can do if we intentionally weave these approaches into everyday school life. The school culture would be one of prevention based on care and respect, taking responsibility, learning appropriate behavior, and of intervention based on restoring damaged relationships.

What kind of problem behavior are we talking about?
We are concerned with all types of violence (physical force used to violate, damage, or abuse another, and abusive or unjust use of power)on the continuum from subtle/emotional to obvious/physical.

The Violence Continuum- where conflicts escalate from subtle to obvious:

SUBTLE__name-calling__excluding__teasing__embarrassing__taunting__hitting__stealing__ spreading rumors__ bullying__harassing__stalking__threatening with harm__ganging up on__punching__assaulting sexually__targeting for hate crimes__stabbing__shooting__killing__OBVIOUS

What kind of solutions are there?
Conflict resolution prevention and intervention strategies needed to prevent and address violence also fall on a continuum from pro-action/prevention to intervention/resolution.

The Conflict Resolution Continuum where school-wide practices range from prevention to intervention to crisis management:

PREVENTION__ nurturing a positive school climate of caring, respectful relationships where every student is my student__identifying common values and social norms__providing bullying-prevention training, policies, and procedures__compiling student generated behavior guidelines/rules/codes of conduct__teaching, practicing, modeling, applying principles of restorative justice and positive social and conflict resolution skills__using informal conflict resolution(What are you doing? What can you do instead?)__involving families to work with us as a team__developing individual problem-solving plans__counseling/adult mentoring__providing formal peer and adult mediation__assigning in-school suspension__suspending from school__using formal restorative justice programs__expelling from school____arresting__incarcerating__ CRISIS

When a situation escalates in seriousness, conflict mediation and restorative justice can break the cycle of punishment:

inappropriate behavior+punishment+more inappropriate behavior+harsher punishment=

destroyed relationships + damaged lives

Mediation allows each student in a conflict to peacefully work out a solution they can both live with. The impartial mediator-peer or adult-provides a safe and respectful setting where they can express their concerns and feelings, gain insight into how their behavior affects others, and talk to each other in a respectful way to come up with an agreement. Mediation helps students consider the perspectives of others and can prevent the escalation of a conflict. It helps restore broken relationships and to build new ones. Through the mediation process students learn that conflicts are normal, to take responsibility for their part in the conflict, to work together to solve the problem, and that they can peacefully settle conflicts with positive words and actions.

Restorative justice is an opportunity to change negative behavior by focusing on the harm done to the victim-person or community. Its goal is not to punish but to develop empathy and mend relationships. The offender is expected to make things right and to not repeat the behavior in the future. Rather than receiving external punishment handed out by an adult authority, the offender takes ownership of his actions and is actively involved with repairing the damage done. It is an educational approach that aims to teach responsibility, change attitudes, and replace destructive behavior with constructive choices. Formal restorative justice programs are appropriate for secondary students and we also practice restorative justice with young children when we ask them how they can fix the mess they made, including emotional hurt they may have caused others.

Through mediation and restorative justice processes, students learn how their actions are personal choices and that their choices have consequences on people and communities. They learn the invaluable quality of empathy and compassion and how to restore harmony.

Even with strong prevention efforts conflicts and violence of many forms and intensities will still arise. Mediation and restorative justice are not the answer for all offenses. Serious behavior that threatens someone’s physical safety and emotional well-being is still dealt with consistently, swiftly, and assertively. Yet we can address all those other negative behaviors on the middle and lower ends of the violence continuum in more constructive ways that teach, model, and expect better behavior.

 

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Part Two: If not zero-tolerance, then what?

If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.

It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.

In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.

Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:

“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)

One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.

Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?

Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:

  • ·        Caring relationships.
  • ·        High expectations.
  • ·        Meaningful participation.
  • ·        Autonomy and sense of self.
  • ·        Sense of meaning and purpose.

(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)

A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”

In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.

To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.

Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline  policies do not work.

In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.

Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.

Hazing: A sugarcoated name for bullying and assault

A Case of Rights vs Rites

We owe it to our students to call it what it is.

Hazing is violent behavior we’d never excuse under its real name: bullying and assault.

Hazing is tacitly permitted and spans the violence continuum from taunting, extortion, and humiliation, to forced substance abuse, and physical and sexual assault. Like all bullying, hazing is an abuse of power and it negatively affects both girls and boys. The problem continues to exist because students are afraid to report it, it flies under the radar of adult scrutiny, or adults are aware of it and do nothing. Looking the other way and this veil of secrecy provide the perfect mix for uncontrolled, destructive behavior under the guise of tradition and good fun.

The traditions and myths surrounding hazing allow it to enjoy a protected place in our culture, not just in our colleges, but also in our public and private elementary and secondary schools. Status as a cultural norm, which considers negative initiation rites benign and even character building, is an imposing barrier. The norm is strengthened even more by student peer pressure and the need for acceptance into the group. The effect is students routinely give up their rights and quietly suffer humiliation and put themselves in emotional and physical danger in exchange for the chance to be included. They don’t see a way out of going along with the initiation rites if they want to be able to take part in the group activity they enjoy. We need to develop and present a new mindset and set up policies that give students a way out.

Who is in charge of eliminating hazing?

Clearly we are, just as we are responsible for maintaining academic standards and establishing a safe school climate. The adult staff is accountable to do no harm and to allow no harm be done to their students. Coaches and advisors for sports teams, music groups, social activities, and clubs have a specific responsibility to keep safe the students under their care by prohibiting and reporting hazing that occurs on or off school property and during or outside of school hours. If a college fraternity chapter can be suspended from campus for life for hazing abuses and members charged with assault, coaches and other adults who allow our young students to be abused and those students who abuse others should face comparable consequences.

The reality is most students want us to protect them from hazing. They don’t want to be victims and many don’t want to be put in the role of victimizer. They want adults to intervene, hazers disciplined, the police called, school leaders who are educated about the underground of initiation rites, and hazing replaced with positive experiences.

Adult culpability for what happens to their students is a wake up call to all elementary and secondary school staff. The Ohio State Education Department takes this responsibility seriously. Their anti-hazing code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. They have placed hazing into the realm of a crime where it belongs.

But students fear nothing will change, and some adults justify hazing, because it is difficult to break down well-established traditions. Yet we have repeatedly proven we can change school climate and school culture. Think of what used to be ingrained in the culture and policies of our schools: students segregated by race, separate schools and classrooms for students with disabilities, different courses and graduation and post graduation expectations for boys and girls, rigid academic tracking from a young age, the use of corporal punishment for discipline. From experience, we know that the most effective way to change the status quo is to get the cooperation of those involved and to take a clear and firm position together.

In the unique case of hazing, school policies, staff, students, and families need to be clear and firm that no emotional or physical violence, couched as a harmless initiation rite for acceptance into a group, regardless of tradition, will be allowed, ignored, or excused. Any anti-bullying policy that does not specifically address hazing is incomplete.

Instead we will:

  • Create a written code of conduct for extra-curricular groups that specifically prohibits any form of hazing. (See Evergreen Colorado HS anti-hazing sample policy below.)
  • Bring parents together to review the code and to enlist their support for its success.
  • Consistently publicize and enforce the anti-hazing policy.
  • Create a confidential hotline so hesitant students and parents can report hazing to the authorities.
  • And as our new mindset, offer positive, respectful adult leadership and collaborative activities to welcome new students into a group.

Sample policy

Evergreen Colorado High School Anti-Hazing Policies

Evergreen High School prohibits recognized groups, organizations, athletic teams or those that attend events or activities sponsored, organized or supported in any way by those organizations, from hazing members, prospective members, or other persons seeking to obtain benefits or services from any of these organizations.

Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Evergreen High School property, which is designated to or has the reasonably foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigrating, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing to danger a person, as a condition, directly or indirectly, of the person’s consideration for, continuation in, admission to, membership in, participation in activities of, receipt of benefits or services from, an organization or group.

Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

A Must See/Must Share Cyberbullying Video!

Cyberbullying – What does it look like and what can we do about it?

Students, teachers, parents, counselors, social media users…everyone needs to see this engaging and spot-on video posted by Upworthy.com from DeleteCyberbullying.eu

It will help us and our kids

prevent, avoid, and deal with

cyberbullying.

You might also want to see some of my related posts:

Slam Books and Social Media

Cyber-bating Teachers: A sign of broken relationships

3,500 views this year! Who would have guessed?

Is anyone listening?

Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?

Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.

Blogger or Essayist?

Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.

While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.

So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!

Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Take back your power. No more “please.”

I used to say please. I don’t anymore.

I have red hair.

I wear glasses.

I have freckles.

Please don’t call me names.

I am short.

I stutter.

I have learning problems.

Please don’t make fun of me.

I don’t speak English well.

I have dark skin.

I am quiet around others.

Please don’t laugh when others taunt me.

I wear wrinkled clothes.

I get free lunch.

I like reading more than sports.

Please don’t try to embarrass me.

I am gay.

I live with my father.

I have few friends.

Please don’t gang up on me.

I used to be your friend.

I like the same boy that you do.

I don’t want to drink or smoke with you.

Please don’t write mean things about me.

I shouldn’t have to say please.

I am a person, like you are. I have feelings, like you do. I have rights, like we all have. You are not better than me.

I shouldn’t have to say anything.

But until it stops, I won’t say please.

HBO explores the Brandon McInerney-Larry King murder

The Renewed Interest

Lately, there has been a spike in the number of hits on my posts about the 2008 murder of Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. At first puzzled why there was this renewed interest, I learned about HBO’s recently aired documentary, “Valentine Road.” I then sat down to watch it – with some trepidation. I hoped HBO had done a professional job of presenting the facts and raising the many core issues of the case. They did. It was an accurate and non-sensationalized exploration of the circumstances of Larry’s murder and the legal and social aftermath. Through videos, interviews with those involved – family members, friends, teachers, lawyers – and using court and police records, we see the polarization in the community over who was to blame and the agony of how to impose punishment.

The Story

The two boys: Fifteen year-old Larry was openly gay and cross dressed, Brandon was straight. Larry was multi-racial, Brandon was white. Larry was small with a slight build, Brandon was tall and athletic. Larry lived in a group facility for abused children. Brandon lived with his father and grandfather while his mother was in rehab for her drug addiction.

The basic facts of the incident were straightforward and undisputed: On February 12, 2008, fourteen year old Brandon McInerney brought a loaded gun to E. O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA, got up from his seat in the computer lab, stood behind his classmate, Larry King, who was sitting at a computer, and shot him twice- point-blank-in the back of his head.  As Larry fell to the floor, Brandon dropped the gun and fled the school. Larry died two days later and Brandon was charged with first- and -second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and a hate crime. The district attorney was trying him as an adult and a conviction of first-degree murder carried up to a life sentence with no parole.

The Court Case

The case finally came to trial three years later and after nine weeks it ended with a hung jury. The members of the jury had no doubt Brandon had premeditated and carried out Larry’s murder. Their issues were over the fairness of trying a just-turned 14-year-old as an adult and the perceived circumstances that “drove” Brandon to take such a violent and permanent solution to a problem.

The Mitigating Factors

The mitigating factors proposed by the attorneys revolved around Larry’s increased use of make-up and dressing in girls clothes, the unappreciated open crush he had on Brandon and their unpleasant interactions, the growing tensions between the two, the lack of teacher and administrative interventions in the obviously escalating conflict, accusations of bullying and harassment by both parties, and Brandon’s state of mind when he shot Larry. Other factors on the jury’s mind were: the family backgrounds of both boys, which included foster and institutional care, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and parental drug use; the easy availability of guns; and the role of a local hate group.

After the mistrial trial, Brandon was again charged as an adult for first degree murder. To avoid another exhausting, contentious trial, Brandon pleaded guilty to second degree murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. At the sentencing, conflicting Save Brandon and Justice for Larry buttons were pinned to the sea of onlookers.

The Legacy

What do you think? Would there have been a hung jury and so much public support for the killer if the circumstances were reversed and Brandon was the boy who was bi-racial and the boy who was gay/transgendered and dressed like a girl? Was Larry’s murder a hate crime? Should a 14-year-old who commits an adult level crime such as lying in wait to kill someone, be tried as a juvenile? How much weight should mitigating factors such as family life and bullying have in assessing blame and assigning consequences?

Watch “Valentine Road” on HBO GO, (Valentine Road Trailer), read my schoolclimate.com blog posts as I followed the case, read what others have written, look at the thought-provoking Valentine Road Discussion Guide, and most importantly, think about what we can do to avoid such a the tragedy in the future.

What’s your no bullying plan?

It’s a new school year, a clean slate.

You want to create a safe, encouraging, positive climate for learning. You want to develop a relationship of mutual respect among your students and between you and your students. You want your room to be a place that students enjoy coming to, where they cooperate, collaborate, and work hard.

Don’t miss the opportunity to establish, from day one of the new school year, that your classroom is a safe haven – a bully-free zone. Students need the adults in the school to enthusiastically and seriously lead this effort by word and deed. The message you want to send to your students is clear and firm…

  • We all have a right to be treated with respect and care.
  • We do not allow members of our school community to use power over others to hurt them in any way, emotionally or physically.
  • We do not condone bullying by standing by doing nothing or laughing and encouraging the bully.
  • We tell an adult if someone is bothering us or if we see bullying happening to someone else.

The best way to convey your commitment to a healthy classroom climate is to get your students talking about what respect, disrespect, and bullying look like. They already have the answers in their heads and hearts; they know what is okay and what isn’t, even if they might not always seem like they do.

It’s a simple process that needn’t take long. Ask your students to work with you to set the guidelines for acceptable classroom behavior. Through a meaningful group dialog about how to treat each other, they can decide what they want their classroom to feel like and then commit to making it happen.

So instead of starting the new school year with a pre-made list of class rules, actively engage your students in this critical discussion. Their ideas about what respect looks like can easily be made into brief statements of positive classroom behaviors and attitudes that show the goodness they have inside them.

Now your students are an integral part of your no bullying plan! You have a common purpose!

They have described the positive classroom climate you want for them and that they deserve.

Part Two: From Bystander to Ally – learning how to speak out

Speaking out takes practice.

The only way to develop more allies is to educate students and adults about the roles they play in bullying. Participating in bullying role plays and discussing it with each other sensitizes everyone to the perspectives of all the players. This fosters empathy and compassion for the victim, builds a feeling of efficacy – I can do something to make this better – and creates a support group of peers who want to do the right thing. It teaches decision-making, the effect of our choices, builds character, and might even be the catalyst for a child’s self-realization that he is bullying others. Students come away with the powerful understanding that their choices affect how they and their classmates are treated.

For this understanding to translate into a change of attitudes and behavior, students must hear and believe these five messages from adults:

  • You are not responsible for the actions of the bully.
  • You do not have to live with it.
  • We want you to report bullying.
  • We promise, if you are being bullied, we will never leave you to handle it on your own.
  • Reporting a serious problem is not tattling.

To show you mean it, make posters of these five messages to post around the school.

Strategies that empower

With these messages clearly delivered and received, we can teach students to take a stand to not join in bullying using strategies that convey confidence, show resistance, and assess situations. Role plays offer practice for:

  • How to avoid being a victim.
  • How to assess danger and act wisely.
  • Ways to stand up to a bully.
  • The exact things to say to the bully.

Doing the right thing takes personal courage and the ability to assess the situation. Acting as an ally or defender does not mean trying to break up a fight or getting into an altercation with a bully, and if you are the victim, standing up to a bully at that moment is not always the best choice. There is no set approach to stopping bullies in their tracks; specific circumstances and those involved determine the nature of each interaction. Bullies are often physically and mentally strong, act in groups, and have a sense of entitlement that is resistant to correction. Standing up to them does not always work and the target or ally can get hurt in the process. Sometimes the best thing is to get away and seek help immediately. To encourage reporting, some schools have successfully set up bullying hotlines to give students a secure way to report problems.

Victims should only stand up to a bully and an ally or group of allies should only intervene face-to-face when it feels safe to do so. Then they can firmly tell the perpetrator:

  • Stop it!
  • Don’t call her that.
  • That isn’t funny.
  • What you are saying (doing) is mean.
  • I’m getting an adult.

Allies in cyberspace

The roles students play in cyberbullying are similar to face-to-face bullying, but cyberbullying requires additional cautions when you consider how public it is. Social media makes it easy to do, bullies can share photographs and cheerleaders can make anonymous comments, and the size of the potential audience is immense. The cyberbully feels protected and powerful because she does not have to face her victim, while the impact on the victim is immediate, widespread, and devastating.

First, young people need strategies to avoid being a victim of or encouraging cyber-bullying:

  • Choose social media sites and friends wisely.
  • Think about and be careful choosing what to post.
  • Do not post, text, or email anything you don’t want the whole world, including your parents, to see.
  • Do not take part in or cheer on cyberbullying.
  • Use privacy settings and do not share passwords.
  • Do not respond to cyberbullying.

Second, they need to know what to do if either they or someone they know is a victim of cyberbullying. A cyber ally:

  • Tells a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult right away.
  • Keeps evidence of cyberbullying.
  • Blocks the offender.
  • Reports it to school.

Positive action

There is safety in numbers, especially for young people who are greatly influenced by peers. The goal is to create an active majority of allies, adults and students, that knows what bullying looks like and the role they can choose to play. When people refuse to take part or to look the other way, and instead report incidents of bullying to adults who can help, the ally peer group grows and the school climate changes to one of positive action where bullying behavior is no longer tolerated.