Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Does Bullying Really Get Better?

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

High-profile and heartbreaking incidents of student bullying have happened so frequently in recent months, especially among gay and lesbian students, that there’s a new word for the phenomenon: bullicide. And it’s left educators and parents alike wondering—just what in the world are we doing wrong? How is it some of our children can be so mean? And others so despairing? Aren’t these anti-bullying programs, popular in so many schools, working at all?

It’s possible that what we think we know about bullying isn’t all we need to know — it’s also possible that some of the most commonly held assumptions are misguided or that far too many adults still don’t believe bullying is a serious problem.

But finding the right answers is critical to NEA’s mission of ensuring a quality education for every student. Bullying robs students of their opportunity to learn and “exacts scars that can last a lifetime,” notes NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. Its victims are more likely to fall behind, miss school, and eventually drop out.  We owe them more that that. Says Van Roekel: “It is our shared responsibility to ensure that every child can attend a safe public school.” (To see Dennis Van Roekel’s message to students, click here.)

Messy Work

Many bullying programs apply a one-size-fits-all approach to problems on campus. They train teachers and support professionals to be watchful and consistent (often at a high price). But while it’s critically important for every adult on campus to recognize and stop bullying, Colby College professor Lyn Mikel Brown, co-director of the nonprofit Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, believes most of these “top-down” programs look promising, but don’t go far enough.

“You really have to do this work with students,” Brown says. “Those programs don’t allow for the messy, on-the-ground work of educating kids. That’s what has to happen and it looks different in different schools and communities.”

It likely starts with a needs assessment, going into a school and understanding what are the major issues. Is it harassment of gay kids? Is it kids with disabilities? Who are the harassers? Then, Brown says, you have to engage kids in creative ways to work through those issues: “[R]esponsive classroom work, the work where you have kids sitting in circles and processing this information.that’s the most powerful work.”

A whole-school culture shift needs to happen. And that takes the commitment and active involvement of teachers, support professionals, administrators, parents, and students. It is the kind of work that the NEA Bullying and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Intervention Program has provided (for free) to schools across the country for more than a decade. Its cadre of trainers and curriculum guides helps define both bullying and its impact, provides important data and legal information, and also specifically works to activate the “bystander” — an oft-untapped resource in bullying prevention.

That student, who is neither victim nor perpetrator, has the power to step up and say, “You had no right to make her cry,” and stop bullying in its tracks, says Pennsylvania’s Meredith Monteville, a retired school counselor and long-time NEA trainer. This isn’t easy to do, especially since many kids fear becoming the victims of bullies themselves, but it can be done if adults help model those conversations and empower students to intervene, says Alaska paraprofessional Lorie Miner, also an NEA trainer.

This approach, effective in hallways and cafeterias, also works in online communities, an increasingly common venue for 21st-century bullies. It looks like this: “I don’t think that was very nice what you wrote, and no, I’m not going to forward it to all my friends on Facebook.”

Starting Young

Even those who acknowledge that bullying is a vicious, pernicious problem —and believe it or not some educators still say it’s a “normal” part of growing up, “as if there’s some inalienable right to be bullied!” Monteville scoffs — believe it’s not much of an issue until middle school, maybe fifth grade.

Not so, says Meline Kevorkian, author of 101 Facts about Bullying: What Everyone Should Know. According to a new Harris survey of 1,144 parents nationwide, 67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds worry that their children will be bullied – with good reason. A recent survey of Massachusetts third-graders found that 47 percent had been bullied at least once, more than half said they’d been called names or teased in a hurtful way.

It’s not hard to find bullies on preschool playgrounds – and increasingly it’s about the “relational aggression” that pre-teen girls typically display, the “nobody likes you,” “you can’t sit here,” “where’d you get your shoes? Payless?”

Just turn on the television to see the models for that kind of behavior. “Even little girls are getting messages in their media that to be a girl, you have to be into this relational aggressive stuff. It’s in their cartoons, imbedded lessons on how to ‘dis’ other girls for their clothes,” said Lyn Mikel Brown.

Although it doesn’t do much good to label little kids as bullies — labels at any age are harmful, Brown asserts — this evolution does mean that bullying prevention needs to start young. “The dialogue needs to start in preschool and kindergarten, when these relationships are starting,” Kevorkian says. In the same way we teach pre-reading skills, we need to teach the basics of pro-social skills, she says. It’s critical to reinforce basic messages like, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Targeted

Although bullying is a problem for all kids (even the bullies, who are more likely to end up as convicted criminals) these past few months have seemed especially treacherous for kids who can’t conform to traditional gender roles: the boy who wears pink or the girl who borrows from her brother’s closet. Some are gay, some are perceived to be, but either way they’re the target of sexual harassment.

In 2009, nearly nine of our 10 GLBT students reported harassment at school. Even worse, 40 percent said teachers heard or saw it and never intervened, according to GLSEN: the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Training would help – and NEA also offers training specific to GLBT issues. But the work of bullying prevention doesn’t end at the schoolhouse doors.

In their recently released policy briefing, “Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation,” co-sponsored by NEA, the authors call for both a new focus on inclusive school climates – and also better policies and legislation to protect kids. “One of the things that emerged very clearly as important is the existence of an anti-bullying policy that clearly enumerates protected categories,” says Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN.

Kids in schools with those kinds of specific anti-bullying policies, often approved by local school boards, are more likely to report incidents when they happen and they’re also more likely to report that something is done to help when those incidents are reported, Byard asserts. Other things that research shows can specifically help GLBT kids: The presence of a gay-straight alliance; more inclusive curriculum material; and the presence of visible, supportive adults. like you.

“You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” said Virginia teacher Jaim Foster, a member of NEA’s cadre of trainers on GLBT issues.

This article appeared in the January issue of NEA Today magazine. Read more of the magazine’s coverage here.

Photo: John Steven Fernandez

Comments

6 Responses to “Does Bullying Really Get Better?”
  1. Johnny says:

    Great post!
    One thing stood out for me very early on as i read it. You said.. They teach teachers. This hit a nerve with me because the ones who need teaching are the kids and how we present that information to them is essential. It is good that many anti bully programs give teachers lots of information to then go and teach this subject but the target audience is the children and especially how they learn at a young age and the focus of many anti bully programs are on the teachers first which to me defeats the object. Teachers have enough on their plate already with daily lessons to be expected to wade through page after page on how to express that bullying is wrong. Kids already know it’s wrong. They have that information already. What kids want to know is who do i turn to if this happens to me and will they do something about it and what can we as kids DO collectively to help stop it.Kids learn by doing, you only have to watch them sat still as the head teacher talks to know they don’t do well with sitting still. Too much energy! They need to be actively involved no matter what subject because that is how kids learn at a young age.
    Johnny

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  2. Elena says:

    The truth is that teachers are largely unaware of the majority of bullying that occurs. Bullying is designed to be underground and to evade the eyes of authority figures. It takes place behind closed doors, through texting, in the lunchroom, on the athletic field, through facebook, through emails, etc. It is by nature a subversive activity. It usually begins in middle school and continues full force through about the sophomore year. Teachers always seem surprised when they hear about bullying from a parent because none of it is visible to them. Often they are shocked at the perpetrators, as the students who bully are often power figures (academically, socially, athletically) in the school and are perceived as leaders. One time I spoke with a school principal about a gay child being bullied in 8th grade and she responded indignantly that she knew all about bullying, that she had helped craft a policy for the county on the topic. Really? Crafting a school policy does not begin to educate a teacher about bullying. Again, it is subversive, invisible to adults, and underground.

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  3. leeann says:

    So what does a parent do? The schools won’t tell you the students who are bullying your kid. Your own child won’t even tell you, since they don’t want any repercussions at school, and/or the kids jumping you on the way home from school. My son told me that “the boys are going to beat me up the last day of school.” I’ve told the principal and the student counselor who say they’ve talked w/ some of the kids that they trust, and no one has heard anything. Why . . .because the other kids don’t want to be targets. Last year, my son said, Oh, they’re picking on Joey this year, I’m just glad it isn’t me.! What kind of junk is that??? I wish someone would come up with something. . maybe scared straight tactics or something. . because these kids don’t let up! I am now in therapy with my kid for suicidial thoughts and depression! So where do I go for help?

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  4. Vanessa O. says:

    Bullying does not stop when you no longer are a student. I invite you to check out the resources and information listed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobbing to learning about workplace bullying (called “mobbing”).

    Some of the worst bullying behaviors I’ve experienced have been while working as a public school teacher — and they came from the principal and his band of back-stabbing, dishonest cronies. The students don’t even come close to the vicious behavior of the adults in this system who seemed to have honed bullying to a fine art — to the point of threatening the livelihoods of the victims.

    And so, if the adults cannot even behave ethically, there is little hope that they can teacher their students to behave any better.

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