We can all remember classic sitcoms about American families. In every one, there is at least one episode about a bully. I can still remember the Brady Bunch episode where poor little Cindy is teased by the mean bully, Buddy Hinton. Like all sitcoms, there is conflict, but everything works out and always a happy ending.
In the 21st Century, we understand that school bullying and harassment is much different than these classic images. Fights are no longer about lunch money, they are about the very basic characteristics of our students, and today’s bullies use the powerful tools of technology to harass and intimidate their victims 24 hours a day.
And the impacts of this behavior are devastating. Victims of school bullying and harassment struggle to perform in the classroom, and fall behind their classmates. Many face emotional and psychological stress that turn into on-going mental health challenges. In the most extreme cases, these victims try to take their own lives, and a few succeed.
Simply put, we’re not doing enough to prevent bullying and harassment in our schools.
What’s not simple is how to confront the problems our kids are experiencing in classrooms and hallways across the state. Society is failing both the bully and the victim by allowing violence and harassment to interfere with their education.
In the state Legislature, I’ve been working to strengthen our laws to protect students from bullying, harassment and intimidation in our schools. I will be pushing for action when the legislative session begins January 11.
The need for action on bullying and harassment
If you’re having an emergency, you call 911 and they respond with an appropriate level of action. In a sense that is the standard I want for every school in our state.
Right now every school district has a general policy on school bullying and harassment. What isn’t required is a clear and specific plan for how to respond to bullying. That’s not to say schools aren’t responding and some are doing a great job. I know our schools are constantly doing incredible things with limited resources.
With a problem like bullying and harassment, I believe that general policies at the school district level are not enough, every school and district should have a clear and specific plan of action. When a child is bullied, harassed or intimidated, and a parent calls “911” – their school – they should expect that action will be taken and the behavior will stop.
Steps forward to safer schools
Asking our schools to create clear and specific plans is just the first step. We need to change the climate in our schools, and that will take time and investment.
Bullying is a complicated issue and when it comes to changing the attitudes of students and school personnel, we have a lot of conversations that need to take place first. Using legislative action to pull together a workgroup will allow us to study the causes, look at how we’re responding, and what the broader implications of bullying and harassment are to our schools. The ideas and insight out there are promising, but we need a formal conversation to make sure that when we move forward, it’s the right path.
At the end of the day, Cindy Brady had loving parents and a brave older brother that helped her survive her bully. Students today are looking to all of us to stand up for them and keep our schools safe.
For more information, the state’s Office of the Education Ombudsman has a great online resource on school bullying and harassment, in several languages.
Rep. Liias represents the 21st Legislative District and is a member of the House Education Committee.
First of all, I truly appreciate the fact that bullying in schools is an issue that's being treated with serious consideration by our state legislature. Simply put, students who are bullied don't feel safe; and when someone doesn't feel safe, learning is out of the question.
I would like to respond to his call to action with a case study of a school that had a serious bullying problem and dealt with it systematically and effectively: my school.
Not long ago, bullying was a significant threat to the security and learning at my school. It was one of the biggest complaints we heard from our students and their parents. We were embarrassed by the scope of the problem.
Representative Liias is right when he says that schools need a clear and specific plan to deal with bullying. That was exactly what we needed.
So we made one. It took time, it took energy and it took resources. It began with research. And after a lot of it, we settled upon the Olweus Bullying Prevention program. Originally developed in Norway, it's run in the U.S. out of Clemson University.
The first thing we did was send some of our staff out to get trained. They came back and trained the rest of us. It wasn't too complicated, but it was very effective. We learned what bullying is and what it isn't. We learned about the myths that surround the issue. And we learned that there are specific actions that staff and students can do to prevent bullying.
After we got the staff properly trained, we turned our attention to the students. We proceeded with the following steps:
- We had whole school assemblies to teach our students exactly what bullying is, and what it isn't.
- We surveyed our students and their parents to find out the extent, the nature and the exact locations of bullying in our school.
- We began regular meetings in each classroom designed to have students discuss any bullying situations that arose over the past week. Teachers were taught how to confront the bullies in their own classrooms when their names came up in the class meetings.
- We also taught our students how to act when they see bullying at school. They learned that group dynamics play a huge role in either escalating or de-escalating a bullying situation.
- We educated our parents about how to help their children properly deal with bullying, in a way that is non-violent, yet effective.
- We emphasized our focus on ending bullying with an anti-bullying pledge, recited by the student body three mornings a week.
It was a serious undertaking. A lot of work. And since we get a lot of turnover at our school, it's something we have to undertake all over again every September.
But it's paid off. Like Rep. Liias mentioned, to combat bullying you need to change the climate of the school. And that's what we did. Do we still get bullying? Of course. But now we have a student body, a staff and a parent community with the capacity and the vocabulary to deal with it.
Our students might not have Greg Brady to help them, but they've got something better: A community. A community that knows what bullying is and how to stop it.