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This year be a champion!

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution I can get behind:

“Be a social-emotional champion for children.”

In an Edutopia op ed piece, Rutgers’  professor Maurice Elias asks us to go beyond merely promoting children’s social and emotional development, to being active champions who speak out against injustice. Elias, and my new book on school violence, ask that we pay consistent attention to the  “subtle and not so subtle instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying” that span the violence continuum and erode the trust students and parents have in us and in the educational system.

The goal of safe school climate initiatives is to create a climate (feeling) and eventually a culture (practices) where students’ civil and human rights are protected, everyday, by everyone, and in all situations. In this nurturing environment, emotional and physical safety are the driving forces behind everything we do in our schools and classrooms. This commitment to preserve the dignity of all students, to advocate for them when they have no voice, in turn provides children with the safe haven we owe them.

And most importantly, as Elias points out, once we start acting as a vocal, consistent champion for our students, there is no turning back. We will never again be able to ignore injustices and turn away as our students suffer. The obligation to speak out will be part of our personal and professional belief system and our commitment to doing what is right.

With this new resolution – a sincere promise we make to ourselves on behalf of our children – all students will prosper academically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

So this year promise to be a champion for social-emotional development. Resolve to speak out when you see attitudes, behavior, practices, and policies that are harmful and hurtful to our children.


* For more information visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia, “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race…not just the vision for this new world of learning but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”

McInerney murder retrial avoided

 Calif. teen pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in killing of gay classmate, faces 21-year term

Last summer the jury was unable to agree on a conviction of first degree murder or  involuntary manslaughter in the case of Brandon McInerney’s killing of classmate Larry King. Both were Oxnard, CA middle school students at the time of the shooting and of contention was the decision to try Brandon as an adult. Brandon was ready to be retried, again as an adult, when today the Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney announced Brandon had agreed to a plea bargain that will avoid the ordeal of a second trial. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from the people of Ventura County.

If there is any good to come from this tragedy it is that minds are more open to the realities of school life, that harassment of gay students is all too common, and that school staff and students are better prepared to intervene to stop the emotional violence of teasing, taunting, and name-calling before it escalates into overt physical violence.

For more information on this case, read my 8/28/10, 8/30/10 , 9/2/10, and 10/11/10 posts and search the McInerney murder case.

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.

Some Numbers to Think About

This following sampling of safe school climate statistics paints an interesting picture of what violence in our schools really looks like.

What does this information tell you?

How can you apply it to your everyday life as a teacher?

  • 628,200 students ages 12-18 were victims of violent crime at school in 2005.  (CDC 2008)
  • 90% of teachers surveyed felt it was their job to intervene when they witnessed bullying. (NEA 2010)
  • 76% of Americans say they have trust and confidence in public school teachers. (PDK/Gallup 2010)
  • 55% of  students said schools needed to increase teachers’ trustworthiness to improve student-teacher relationships. (NYCSS 2004)

  • 39 % of middle schools reported student bullying occurred at school daily or at least once a week compared to 20% for primary and high schools. (U.S. DOE 2011)

  • 160,000 students go home early on any given day for fear of being bullied. (CDC 2008)
  • 29% of students in 6th-12th grade said they had the social competence to plan and make decisions. (Search 2002)

  • 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. (GLSEN 2009)
  • < 2% of  homicides and suicides among 5-18 year-olds occurred at school. (NCES 2009)
  • 0% difference between the number of public and private school students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school. (NCES 2011)

Resources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)

National Education Association  Nationwide Study of Bullying (NEA)

New York Center for School Safety (NYCSS)

Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Annual Poll (PDK) of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools (PDK/Gallup)

Search Institute

US Department of Education (USDOE)

Start the year with a promise.

Make a promise to yourself and your students.

Start off  the year with a commitment to setting a positive school climate. Make it a part of your first day activities and integrate it into everything you do all year. Then consistently model what you expect from your students in all that you say and do.

At any grade level you can show students you care about them as individuals and as a group by sharing who you are as a person and asking them to share with you. Tell them what is important to you and what you appreciate and enjoy about teaching. Find out what is important to them in their personal lives and in school.

Talk about the roles students play in acts of bullying and explain the difference between tattling and reporting a genuine concern  they might have about themselves or something they see happening to another student. Let them know they can come to you if someone or something is bothering them, including  cyber-bullying.

In the elementary grades invest time in the first week to establish a positive classroom climate: brainstorm what it takes to get along and to be able to learn, and then develop the classroom rules together; write a simple code of conduct and have the students bring it home to share with their parents and guardians; give students the chance to share who they are through a personality box (*see below); create a violence continuum together that highlights the more subtle things children their age do to hurt each other.

In middle school, on the first day of class, take time with each section you teach to stress what you expect from them. Ask them what they expect from you, too. Create a violence continuum and deal with the issues of bullying and harassment right away. Make it clear that you care  about each of them, and that you will never tolerate them hurting each other emotionally or physically. Remind them that you are there if they need to talk.

In high school take time to establish your expectations for the year in each class and work to develop a rapport with your students. Have the students complete a violence continuum and define what a positive classroom climate looks like. Emphasize treating each other with care and respect – both you and your students. Tell them that no one should be the target of hurtful behavior, and that they can come to you with any problem or question, and you will take it seriously. Address hazing, provide cyber-bullying prevention tips, and state your policy about the use of social media in your classroom.

School administrators can apply these approaches when they communicate their expectations for positive social behavior and peaceful solutions to conflict  to their students, staff, and families. They should model what they expect as they interact with students in general and with those who are having problems, and with parents and staff.

What you do that first day will set the tone for the year and your follow through will establish a positive, safe classroom and school climate, and make school a better place for you and your students.

* A personality box is a collection of items that represent who you are as a unique individual. Students and their teachers fill a paper bag or shoe box (provide them in case students do not have access to one at home) with items that show what they like to do and what is important to them.  Then each gets the opportunity to share the collection with an appreciative audience – their teacher and classmates! Before sharing, teach proper audience behavior by asking students how they would like to be treated when it is their turn to present. This activity is especially beneficial to those children who are at the fringe of the classroom or school social structure; it is harder to victimize someone we know about and see as a real person with feelings. Personality boxes and similar activities go a long way in helping you set the emotionally and physically safe classroom climate your children deserve.