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Bullying, Your School, and What You Can Do About It

Bullying, Your School, and What You Can Do About It
August 15 was an unusual day for me: I spent most of it tweeting.

I wasn’t alone. Education agencies, administrators, teachers, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, and many others were tweeting live for the 2014 Federal Bullying Prevention Summit. This year’s topic, “Keeping Kids Safe: Opportunities and Challenges in Bullying Prevention,” examined:
 
  • Bullying trends and prevention research
  • Bullying prevention programs, and the challenges in implementing them
  • Cyberbullying
  • Bullying as it relates to school discipline, policies, and procedures

Bullying Impacts Culture
The entire summit was about looking beyond “school bullying”—that is, beyond the classroom, hallway, playground, or bus. It was about how school bullying impacts and pervades the entire school culture and climate. Speakers such as Roberto J. Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education in the White House Domestic Policy Council, reminded us:
 
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And he wasn’t the only one. There were multiple references to the work that Arne Duncan and the Department of Education and Eric Holder and the Department of Justice have done on the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which seeks to help schools “foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments.”

Big Picture—or Layers?
Bullying is complex; we have to look at it both as a big picture and in layers, so we can uncover what does and doesn’t work for individuals and our society.

The “agreed-upon definition” for bullying, according to StopBullying.gov, primarily focuses on behavior. Troubling and challenging behaviors can become disciplinary issues. If handled in a negative way, repetitive disciplinary issues can weigh heavily and with negative outcomes on both students and staff. When bullying behaviors rock the core of everyone’s right to feel safe and respected, they can really become a civil rights issue.

If we empower schools to create safe, positive and respectful cultures, bullying will not be tolerated. Student and staff relationships will be built on trust and respect. Kids will feel safer, and like they can thrive. It’s good for everyone. But we need to remember to be person-centered, not just community-focused.

The RULER Method
One of my favorite speakers of the day was Marc A. Brackett, Ph. D, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning. Marc and the RULER approach challenge us to go beyond bullying prevention, toward skill-based social and emotional learning. Students with a higher emotional intelligence have less anxiety, less depression, are less likely to abuse substances, and are even less aggressive and less likely to bully.
 
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Part of RULER’s framework includes using the Mood Meter (available in an app) to help both students and staff increase self-awareness about both how they feel, and also how to describe how they feel. We’ve all been there—in a place where you feel something like anger, but you know that’s not the right word. And, you get even more upset when you can’t describe how you feel. By checking in with the Mood Meter, you get to the nuances between similar feelings, improving your emotional vocabulary (and intelligence). When you can best describe your feelings, you can really own them.

RULER also uses the Meta-Moment, an approach that asks students or staff to take a brief step back from a situation before reacting or responding. When you’ve taken that moment, then you can come forward with your “best self,” your most positive response.

The Mood Meter and Meta-Moment pieces reminded me a lot of CPI’s own Integrated Experience. You can’t control someone else’s behavior, but you can control your response to it.

Cyberbullying
The online world is never off. Students today can’t come home and escape school bullying the way their predecessors might have; Facebook and other social media tools make it far too easy to keep the bullying going, anonymous or not. Several of the summit participants, from students to educational leaders, recognized that the way we’re socially connected today adds another layer of complexity.

Emily Vacher, J.D., M.S., M.P.A., Head of Global Safety, Privacy and Public Policy for Facebook, shared what Facebook is doing to empower users to take control of what they see on Facebook and how it makes them feel. They’ve even partnered with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on specific language to use for both youth and adults to share how they feel when reporting a bullying- or harassment-related post.

Ms. Vacher walked the audience through the steps. Basically, every post you see on Facebook has a little chevron, or down caret on the upper right corner:
 
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Once you click, you're presented with a series of options (which vary depending on the post and who the poster is). If it’s a friend of yours who has posted something you don’t like, Facebook has a series of steps that allow you to solve the problem with the person directly, or get another friend involved to help you. Of course you can always report it directly to Facebook. Most posts, however, are not in violation of the Facebook community guidelines. That’s why Facebook seeks to empower their users to resolve issues in other ways.

Facebook’s Put a Stop to Bullying hub has much more information, and even includes tips targeted to teens, parents, and educators.

Speaking of Teens, Parents, and Educators . . .
Another thing that was so encouraging and inspiring about the day was the variety of people in attendance. In particular, there were several youth leaders who not only facilitated group breakout discussions in the afternoon, some of them shared their personal stories about bullying.

We heard from Mr. Oakley G. Perry, a young man from Georgia who was bullied throughout high school, but found safety and a way to make a difference through 4-H. During a panel discussion, Oakley talked about the importance of educating educators so they best know how to help students. He’s just beginning his college career but intends to continue making a difference in bullying prevention for the rest of his life.

We also heard from Ms. Madison E. Hudson, a junior at a high school in Maryland, who founded Bullied Teens Support Group. Madison expressed that teens often don’t feel like it’s OK to tell someone when they're being bullied, for fear of being a "snitch." The group strives to be a safe place for students to share what they're going through, and get the support they need. Madison monitors the website, group email, and social media accounts so that even someone who may not be in the immediate area still has someone to reach out to for support.

Honorable Mentions: PBIS and Trauma-Informed Care
PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) provides a great framework for helping create a positive school climate.
 
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From teaching social skills and empathy in the classroom to developing a positive common language throughout the school, educators can use PBIS and SW-PBIS (School-Wide PBIS) to help students reduce bullying behaviors significantly. In fact, the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports says that bullying prevention is SWPBIS.

I was also encouraged to hear several references to the importance of Trauma-Informed Care for students. We're seeing more and more that experiencing traumatic events has an enormous impact on students from all walks of life. Trauma can affect a student's health, concentration, behavior, and any number of factors—and it can lead to a child being bullied or even engaging in bullying behavior, if only to soothe their suffering by feeling some kind of power. Much talk at the summit surrounded how important it is that we help kids build their strengths. Whether they're struggling with abuse, poverty, neglect, being bullied, bullying others, or something else, all students need our support.

New Resources
I learned about a new video resource, Bullying, Harassment, and Civil Rights, designed to help school districts understand their federal obligation to respond to bullying and harassment.

SAMHSA also released a new app (available for iPhone and Android), KnowBullying. It puts tools and strategies in parents’ hands to have conversations (in as little as 15 minutes a day) to build self-esteem and prevent bullying. It also includes a section for educators.
 
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Conclusion
School bullying is a complex issue that requires a collective solution—from students, staff, administration, parents, community-based orgs, NGOs, and society as a whole. That's why days like last Friday are important. The more people that can get together and collectively solve this issue, the sooner we can get there. I know many, including me, left the day with a renewed sense of purpose in doing everything we can to prevent school bullying.
 
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