New Plan for Preventing Suicides in Tompkins County

The Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition on February 24 unanimously adopted a three-year strategic plan guided by a vision “for a community where no lives are lost to suicide” and using data, science, and collaborations to implement effective strategies.

T-shirts for the Greater Ithaca “Out of the Darkness” Walk, September 18, 2021

The plan noted that suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34, and in Tompkins County approximately half of the population is under 30.

“We believe that the persistent rise in the U.S. suicide rate over the past two decades demands a public health response from communities across the nation,” the plan stated. It said that since 2016, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. Another 1,600 parents, children, siblings, friends, and spouses may have been negatively impacted by resulting psychological, spiritual, and/or financial loss, it added.

The plan seeks to improve the quality and enhance the use of data sources and systems for suicide prevention in Tompkins County. It proposes the development of a data collection infrastructure to regularly collect timely, high quality, and interpretable data on those at risk of suicide. It calls for a county dashboard that integrates data from multiple sources for the purposes of surveillance, monitoring program/policy impact, and informing the coalition’s planning and activities.

The plan’s second goal is to advance quality improvement for suicide care in all Tompkins County healthcare and behavioral health settings. It seeks to promote and facilitate the implementation of the Zero Suicide Model in the county’s major healthcare and behavioral health settings as well as in primary care practices and clinical therapy practices. The plan calls for the formation of a Zero Suicide Work Group comprised of health and mental health providers, and funding for a coordinator to manage and assist education, training, and other collaborative activities.

Another goal is to reduce suicide attempts in the youth population, including students attending local colleges, through suicide awareness activities and “gatekeeper” training programs.

The plan seeks to reduce access to lethal means for suicide within high-risk demographic populations as determined by national, state, and local data. It calls for suicide prevention awareness programming related to suicide death by firearms and suicide death by drug overdose.

Finally, the plan seeks to advocate for policies and practices designed to prevent suicides in the community and to request support and funding from government agencies and nonprofit organizations. The plan said the coalition would support legislation in the New York State Legislature for full funding for the enhancement of crisis response services aligned with the introduction of the 988 suicide prevention lifeline number in 2022.

The plan said that the coalition is committed to measuring the results of its strategic plan and making them public. The coalition drafted its strategic plan with the support of the Suicide Prevention Center of New York.

The Suicide Prevention Coalition was founded in 2017 by 40 health agencies, community organizations, and individual members who share a determination to prevent suicide deaths in Tompkins County. “The coalition draws inspiration and purpose from The Watershed Declaration, a call to action by Tompkins County mental health leaders to renew our community’s commitment to suicide prevention,” the plan said.

Creating Kind, Safe, and Inclusive School Cultures

In my 30 years of practice as a school social worker, I’ve enjoyed working in four elementary schools and a middle school and high school. School communities are mirrors of societies with many similar dynamics. There is a tendency for societies to develop hierarchies. Those with more status exert their power over those with less status. And in some primary and secondary schools, this can mean the older students feel entitled to treat younger students in unkind ways, sometimes rising to bullying.

By creating kind, inclusive school communities, bullying and cyberbullying, as well as unkind behaviors, are less likely to occur. And when they do happen, the students from these healthy school cultures are more likely to know how to respond in a kind and helpful way by standing up to the hurtful behaviors either online or in the schoolyard.

These are students who share ownership and thereby take responsibility for maintaining a kind culture. I will outline a path whereby students look out for one another and take care of the younger and socially more vulnerable community members, for example students on the autism spectrum and students who identify as LGBTQ or are perceived to be LGBTQ.

Students who feel that they have a role to play as helpful upstanders at school can carry on this attitude on social media. Ultimately it requires that students need to trust adults. The current statistics do not reflect that trust. Nationwide, only 19 percent of students report bullying and only 11 percent report cyberbullying.

It starts with laying down a foundation of kindness and inclusiveness. To accomplish this, I’ve developed school programs which partner with students. One is for elementary schools named FAB and the other is WAM for secondary schools. 

The first norm I changed in my elementary schools was to address the practice of having boyfriends and girlfriends. I collaborated with the principals to establish an expectation that there are “no boyfriends or girlfriends.” This eliminated a dynamic whereby the focus of student’s attention was “who is going out with who,” “who do you like,” “who just broke up?” This drama ends up causing rumors, distress, and power dynamics that spill into classrooms and takes the attention off schoolwork. Once the older boys no longer felt they needed to be “attractive and cool” to impress the girls, and the girls no longer felt pressure to have a boyfriend to establish their popularity, it removed one of the components that can perpetuate a power structure. It goes without saying that this drama can easily play out in social media.

Friendship Assistance Brigade

FAB stands for Friendship Assistance Brigade. In creating this foundation of kindness, I conducted a survey asking students how they feel in the community and how much unkind behavior they notice.  I’d like to underline the fact that I do not use the word bullying, which is too limiting a term. I explained to students that kind and unkind behaviors are more reflective of what occurs.  I asked them to keep their focus on kindness and if they encouraged and modeled kindness, this would ultimately result in less bullying.

Once the survey was completed, I tabulated the data using colorful pie charts and presented the findings to the students. Rather than doing the interpreting myself, I asked them, “What do you see? What do you think of this?”  Frequently, survey results are not shared with students. Yet they are the ones that most urgently need to see it. They are the stakeholders. By sharing this with them, I demonstrated that I respected their opinion and invited them to become partners in moving forward.

When I was ready to start FAB, I pitched it to the 4th and 5th graders. I asked them, “Remember when you were the young ones and you looked up to the 4th and 5th graders and wanted to be like them? Now that you are the oldest students, you can choose to be a good role model and the younger students will want to be kind like you and they too will want to be in FAB when they get older.” And that is exactly what happened. Most of the younger siblings of FAB members also joined when they were old enough.

We met during lunch and recess once a week. During this time, they practiced the skits that had been developed over the years often in response to situations brought to our attention by students, or teachers.  They performed the skits, which are unscripted improvs, three times.

Take one is the unkind way. Take two involves an upstander stepping in, and take three is the kindest way.

Some of the more popular skits were: include others in play; boys and girls can play together (without teasing); share the ball; party invitations from home; be kind when someone makes a mistake; no bragging about grades, about winning, or about some expensive new item you received; and “stop means stop.” These skits were then presented at school assemblies or in individual classrooms. During our time together, we read and discussed books about bullying, upstanders, and kindness.  We spent time problem solving; we learned how to resolve conflicts and students developed compassion and empathy.

Here are some examples of how I knew FAB was successful. First, bullying events decreased. One example of awareness and compassion occurred when three students came to me and reported that they had read a book about autism from the school library, and concluded that one of their classmates fit the description and furthermore, he was being bullied right under the teacher’s nose and the teacher was unaware.

Another successful outcome happened when a socially isolated young person on the autism spectrum joined FAB. He initially did not join. I attributed that to the fact that he didn’t really understand the idea. So, I called his mother and asked for permission to be more persistent in my invitation to have him join. Well, he did join and became one of the most active and excited skit actors. He was in a skit for the entire school. Other members of FAB had shared with me that he had been bullied the year before. They told me this with him present. I asked them to look out for him. He stopped being bullied and he did develop a friendship group. The takeaway is that recruitment often involves reaching out personally to students. 

I found other opportunities for laying down the foundation of kindness. I offered lessons to all the 4th and 5th grade classrooms about safe, kind, and smart use on the internet. We covered everything including pop ups, spam, social media, netiquette, chain mail, addiction, and cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying was the most comprehensive unit and included covering sexting with the 5th graders. I would describe the forms of cyberbullying and explain ways to be an upstander. I proposed that one of the avenues they could take was to befriend the target and not to be sucked into the back-and-forth flame war. Throughout, I pointed out the importance of letting their adults know. And we practiced how to respond kindly online after brainstorming some ideas.

Also, I always asked them to educate me about their online experiences.  They were eager to share what was happening in their cyber worlds and via this questioning and invitation to share, they disclosed some scary situations that they had encountered. My intention was that by asking questions, and providing space for them to share their experiences, I was building the trust and the open communication that are necessary components when creating safe and kind communities.

Another vital component to creating inclusive and safe schools is to be present during recess.  It entails walking around and noticing what is happening socially. Who is all alone? Are girls permitted to join sport activities and are all players treated respectfully. How are teams picked?

Pay Attention

This brings me to underlying principles that point to best practice for all school staff in preventing bullying. First, pay attention. Bad stuff happens right under the noses of adults. Regardless of why teachers don’t intervene, this is interpreted by students as “they don’t care.” There are, of course, many school staff, including teacher aides, who do pay close attention and have been some of the most effective responders to unkind behavior.

If you see a group rough housing and everyone is laughing, don’t assume that everyone is having a good time. Be aware of the pecking order. Talk privately with the student on the bottom. Ask them if they are enjoying it. They may say “yes.” But if you have a gut feeling that it is one sided, you can ask all of them politely to stop the rough housing.

An example of paying attention happened years ago when I came across a student sitting by himself eating his lunch. Another student approached him asking him for his sandwich, which he immediately handed over. I asked him privately later if he meant to share his food. He said he did not. I asked him if he’d like me to talk to the other student or if he wanted to himself. He asked me to. When I approached the other student, he was quite taken aback. He’d assumed that the other student was okay with it and promised not to ask him for food again. The takeaway is pay attention, ask questions, interview the person of concern privately, never with the perpetrator.

Ask Questions. I have found that youth love to talk about social issues online and in school. They just may not want to disclose what is happening to themselves. To get around this, I ask what they are seeing in terms of bullying or unkind behavior in others. Once the pressure is off them, I have found that students are very forthcoming.

Follow through. On many occasions, students have reported to me that in their schools there was an initial big response to bullying but that once the situation had blown over, there was no follow through and the bullying reemerged. This turns out to be one of the chief reasons that students don’t share what is happening. They think that either the adults will do nothing helpful, or they will make it worse. They do not trust that the adults will intervene in a successful way.

Be the One. Make sure that every student has at least one adult in the school that they feel close to.  Someone must “be the one” to ensure that every student feels that they belong to a caring community.

Welcoming Allies and Mentors

Which brings me to WAM, a program for  middle and high school students. WAM stands for Welcoming Allies and Mentors. It came about many years ago when a teacher approached me and asked if I could do something about the high schoolers who were in effect hazing the new middle schoolers. My school spanned 6-12th grade. I began with a survey and had a team of students analyze the results and pursue a program that would address their concerns. WAM grew out of this.

WAM totally switched it up, creating a new school norm from having older students complain about and harass or ignore younger students to being their allies, friends, and advocates. Older students are matched with incoming 6th graders and other new students. These mentors are responsible for orienting new students over one day of information sharing and ice-breaking games.

They are then paired with their student/s for the rest of the year and often continue this relationship until they graduate. They become the go-to person when their mentee has questions or concerns. The WAM team met once a week to discuss the general tone of the community and any problems that they had seen. One such issue was that the older students were budging in the lunch line.

We brought in an expert to discuss suicide, signs, responses, and the necessity of sharing concerns with adults. We learned about hidden and not so hidden disabilities. We recruited students with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Muscular Dystrophy, Attention Deficit Disorder,  Tourette Syndrome, and autism to speak at an assembly to share some of the characteristics of their disability and how it produced challenges, and most importantly, how the community could be supportive. This trust and sharing of information are indicative of a community that is safe, kind, and inclusive. WAM also organized fun bonding events for their mentees.

Just as with FAB, there were no barriers to joining WAM. No grade requirements, no behavior requirements, no essays, or teacher recommendations. And as with FAB, I actively recruited students that would offer diversity. I had one student sign up who was known to the community as being unkind. I reminded him that in signing up he would have to be a good role model and that he didn’t exactly have that reputation. He assured me that he was ready and eager to turn a new leaf. He ended up being one of the most effective leaders and a terrific role model.

Another student that I actively recruited was a loner. He reluctantly joined and became one of the most popular WAM mentors. His students absolutely adored him, and he came out of his shell and relished in the discovery that he had something to offer others. One member of WAM became a very vocal and articulate leader for students on the autism spectrum.

Another strategy I have used to open communication and establish kind, inclusive school norms was to teach an internet class as well as a section about how to be a helpful upstander for incoming 6th graders. I also conducted a survey of the 6th graders to ascertain if they felt safe and welcome and to provide them with the opportunity to express concerns.

Trusting Adults

How does all this apply to cyberbullying? Once the community has a norm of looking after each other with kindness and compassion, it does migrate to online behavior. What I noticed was that when something did go awry, students were more likely to find adults to share concerns with. They had acquired the skills and the compassion to be helpful upstanders, and they had trust in the adults to be helpful.

To have the best outcome in maintaining safe, inclusive, and kind school cultures, students need to feel trust in their adults. Adults need to partner with students and demonstrate that they care and are truly interested in what they have to say. Students need to take the helm in establishing and maintaining norms of kindness and inclusiveness.

—By Celia Clement

Celia Clement was a social worker for more than 30 years in the Ithaca City School District. She is the author of Three Sisters: A True Holocaust Story of Love, Luck, and Survival.

This article is adapted from a presentation delivered in a panel discussion on “Strengths Based Intervention & Prevention Approaches” at the 2022 United in Kindness symposium on cyberbullying sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force. CLICK HERE TO WATCH A VIDEO OF THE EVENT

Why School Climate is a “Big Deal”

How can educators prevent bullying and cyberbullying? Creating or maintaining a healthy school climate is one of keys, according to Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

A slide from Sameer Hinduja’s “School Climate 2.0” presentation

School climate is a “big deal,” says Hinduja, the keynote speaker at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27. He defined school climate as a constellation of elements, such as connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school spirit, school safety, and morale—not just of students but also educators.

In a presentation aimed at youth-serving adults titled “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time,” Hinduja pointed to research done by his center indicating that the best school cultures combined a strong disciplinary structure with emotional support and warmth.

When schools were perceived by students as having a healthier and safer school climate, he said, they experienced fewer problem behaviors, such as bullying and cyberbullying. “When you improve school climate, you also have higher academic achievement, lower truancy, lower absenteeism, and higher morale,” he added.

Hinduja shared numerous suggestions for building a healthy school climate. He noted that some of them were designed for schools experiencing Covid-19 virtual learning periods, but that they could be beneficial in normal times as well.

He pointed to a school in Chester, NJ that encouraged students to share social media posts with a school hashtag expressing their school spirit, such as a photo wearing school colors, or a video giving words of encouragement to a fellow student or teacher.

Hinduja said that the student council at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, AZ created a variation of the hashtag challenge during “Valley’s Gone Virtual Week.” Each day, classmates were invited to share a photo of their favorite Netflix show, or an Instagram image of themselves dressed in rainbow colors, or a Snapchat picture wearing as much yellow as possible.

At Bedford High School in Bedford, OH, Hinduja said, school administrators use Instagram as a platform for communicating school news as well as messages discouraging unkind behaviors such as bullying. Such posts, he explained, “can be used to plant seeds in the minds of our youth to make the appropriate decisions, the wise decisions, the best decisions, the mature decisions.”

Hinduja said that some schools, such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the scene of a mass school shooting in 2018, have created Instagram accounts modeled after Humans of New York to share stories of resilience.

WATCH: “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time”

Hinduja said another way to encourage youth involves projects allowing “purposeful pairing” of older and younger students, which gives the older one the chance to learn leadership skills and gives the younger one somebody to look up to and emulate.

Hinduja supports kindness campaigns, anti-bullying clubs, and the use of play acting skits to encourage positive behaviors among students. He cited a phenomenon of using flash mob dances in school to bring powerful messages to fellow students.

“In the cafeteria, music starts blaring through the speakers, and a critical mass of students rises to their feet and start dancing in synchronized fashion,” he explained. “Everyone is like, ‘What in the world is happening?’ But right then and there they have a platform to speak of what is near and dear to their hearts, whether it’s victimization, or how we’re treating minority populations, or misogynist comments heard in the locker room.”

Hinduja said that schools can foster and facilitate upstander behavior among students through presentations like the Starbucks “Upstanders” original series on YouTube; the videos celebrate ordinary young people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities, he said.

“Many students are surveying the landscape looking to be inspired,” Hinduja said. “So let’s inspire them with stories of youth just like them who are doing epic and legendary things to make a difference.”

He cited many examples of projects initiated by young people that can serve to inspire, such as the Canadian teenager who came up with #PositivePostItDay by writing compliments on Post-It notes and putting them on lockers throughout her school.

Another is the nine-year-old in Arizona, who founded Hoops of Hope, a basketball free-throw marathon that has raised $2.5 million to support orphaned children in Africa who lost parents to AIDS. And another Hinduja cited is a 12-year-old in Wisconsin who started Angels at Bat, which collects gently used baseball equipment from around the country and sends it to needy youth teams in Africa.

Finally, Hinduja recommended that administrators and teachers find ways to connect with students on a meaningful level, such as by creating student advisory boards, and being not only a “trusted” adult but an “askable” adult—a person that young people really know they can turn to.

“They have so much to say, they have so much to tell you, but if you never really demonstrate to them that we care what you have to say, we want to validate your voice, then they’re just going to keep their mouth shut,” said Hinduja.

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force and made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.

Training Tompkins Clinicians in Suicide Prevention

The Sophie Fund is sponsoring scholarships for licensed therapists and social workers in Tompkins County to attend an online training in suicide prevention, “Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A clinical primer for behavioral health providers.”

The Wellness Institute’s training summit will feature national experts in suicide prevention

The training is sponsored by The Wellness Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and will feature presentations by national experts on suicide prevention in clinical practice. It will take place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.

Licensed therapists and social workers working in Tompkins County can receive a registration link for a scholarship by emailing Applicants must provide their name, degree level, and place of employment (or name and address of practice, if self-employed). CE credits are available.

The training is designed to build and strengthen clinicians’ competence and confidence to provide caring evidence-based services to clients with suicide risk and those who have experienced suicide loss.

This event is part of The Sophie Fund’s series of trainings and presentations to support the NY Office of Mental Health’s renewed focus on implementing the Zero Suicide Model across New York State.

On November 16, The Sophie Fund hosted an expert briefing on the Zero Suicide Model for Tompkins County healthcare leaders presented by Jenna Heise, Director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the NYS Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Center of New York; and faculty member, Zero Suicide Institute.

On March 24, Tammy Weppelman, Texas State Suicide Prevention Coordinator and team lead for the Suicide Prevention Team at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, will provide a briefing for Tompkins County frontline healthcare managers on implementing Zero Suicide protocols.

Then on June 16, Virna Little, CEO of Concert Health and a leading expert on integrating primary care and behavioral health, will provide a briefing for primary care physicians and their teams on implementing Zero Suicide protocols in primary care practices

The Sophie Fund believes that preventing suicide is an urgent priority. Over the past five years, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. Another 1,600 parents, children, siblings, friends, and spouses may be impacted by the resulting psychological, spiritual, and/or financial loss. An estimated 300 people in our community may attempt suicide every year.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34. While rates for other causes of death have remained steady or declined, the U.S. suicide rate increased 35.2% from 1999 to 2018. And yet, we know there is help available and treatment works when done effectively.


Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A clinical primer for behavioral health providers, March 9, 2022

“A Model for Understanding Suicidality,” David Klonsky, PhD, University of British Columbia

“Screening and Assessing for Suicide Risk,” Lisa Horowitz, PhD, MPH, National Institutes of Mental Health

“Engagement, Lethal Means Counseling, Treatment Planning and Documentation,” Jill Harkavy-Friedman, PhD, Columbia University, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“Safety Planning Intervention: A Brief Intervention for Reducing Suicide Risk,” Barbara Stanley, PhD, Columbia University, Center for Practice Innovation

“Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention (DBT-SP),” Kate Comtois, PhD, University of Washington, Center for Suicide Prevention and Recovery

“Attachment-Based Family Therapy for Suicide Prevention (ABFT-SP),” Guy Diamond, PhD, Drexel University, Center for Family Intervention Science

“Cognitive Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CT-SP),” Gregory Brown, PhD, Kelly Green, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Prevention of Suicide

“Prolonged Grief Disorder Therapy for Suicide Loss,” Katherine Shear, PhD, Columbia University, Center for Prolonged Grief Disorder

Closing Remarks, Sigrid Pechenik, PsyD, The Wellness Institute, former director, New York State Suicide Prevention Center

Using Strengths Based Approaches to Bullying 

Celia Clement, a retired Ithaca City School District social worker, says that bullying and cyberbullying, as well as unkind behaviors, are less likely to occur in school communities that are kind and inclusive. And when they do happen, she adds, students from healthy school cultures are more likely to respond in a kind and helpful way by standing up to the hurtful behaviors either online or in the schoolyard.

Celia Clement, Jeff P. Godowski, and Savannah Storm speak at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium

Clement was a featured speaker at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force on January 27, 2022.

In a presentation for a panel discussion on “Strengths Based Intervention & Prevention Approaches,” Clement outlined a path whereby students look out for one another and take care of the younger and more socially vulnerable community members.

“Students who feel that they have a role to play as helpful upstanders at school can carry on this attitude on social media,” said Clement. “Ultimately it requires that students need to trust adults.” Unfortunately, she noted, nationwide data shows that only 19 percent of students report bullying and only 11 percent report cyberbullying.

Clement described how she developed two school programs that partner with students to lay a foundation of kindness and inclusiveness in a school community.

One was called the Friendship Assistance Brigade, or FAB, for 5th and 6th graders. FAB developed and performed skits for classmates, in three variations—one illustrating unkind behavior, another showing unkind actions interrupted by an upstander, and a third variation depicting kindness.

FAB met once a week during recess to read and discuss books about bullying, upstanders, and kindness, Clement explained. “We spent time problem solving and learned how to resolve conflicts and students developed compassion and empathy,” she added.

Clement developed Welcoming Allies and Mentors, or WAM, for middle and high school students. WAM matched upper classmen with incoming 6th graders and other new arrivals to the school. Then, these mentors provided an orientation day and were individually paired with the new students for the whole school year, she said.

Clement said she actively recruited students for diversity.

“I had one student sign up who was known to the community as being unkind,” she said. “I reminded him that in signing up he would have to be a good role model and that he didn’t exactly have that reputation. He assured me that he was ready and eager to turn a new leaf. He ended up being one of the most effective leaders and a terrific role model.”

Clement recalled recruiting a loner who reluctantly joined WAM yet became one of the group’s most popular mentors. “Students absolutely adored him, and he came out of his shell and relished in the discovery that he had something to offer others,” she said.

WATCH: “Strengths Based Intervention & Prevention Approaches”

In her presentation, Savannah Storm, a conflict mediation specialist in the Elmira City School District, reported that a lot of bullying takes place on school property and that students “take it home with them” via online platforms.

For example, she said that students post stories on Snapchat, “and then it just becomes this whole viral thing.” By the time the next school day begins,  she said, “students are like, ‘Yo, did you see that? Yo, did you see this person?’ It’s just a huge problem that we’re coming into.”

Storm described the problem with challenges promoted on TikTok. In one case, she said, students were driven to violence.

“It encouraged the students to become violent with the staff members, either hitting them or kicking them, or throwing a desk at them,” she said. “We had some students participate. That was like really, really sad, and it was kind of scary, too. You could really see how much social media can drive some of these students and really make them do things so they can feel like they can fit in.”

Storm described herself as a millennial who is on social media herself. “Some things that I see on there, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I completely see why these kids are doing this or why they feel like they have to participate and do this to fit in, to be cool, to have friends, or to just not be bullied.”

Storm devised a collaborative project to get students to place their cell phones in a box during school hours, as some were using them to promote mischief. For example, she explained, a fight would take place and students would use their phone cameras to film it and then share the video on social media.

Storm promotes the use of a restorative practice called the circle, which can be used proactively to develop connections and build a sense of community, or to respond to wrongdoing, conflicts and problems. According to the model, circles give people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in an atmosphere of safety, decorum and equality.

She said that teachers will call her first thing in the morning to facilitate a circle “to really create that great safe space and atmosphere,” she explained. “Like, ‘Hey, you know home might have been rough last night. What do we need to do or what can I do to help you leave that at the door so we can have a good day here in the school?’”

Storm said that she believe one of the most important things for school personnel is to build relationships with students.

“If you’re not building them correctly, you’re not going to get anywhere with these kids,” she explained. “They’re either going to stonewall, shut down, or you’re going to lose them through the cracks, especially in the educational system. I see that a lot.”

“I walk down the hallway and some of them, I haven’t even met, they’re like, ‘Yo, you got a problem, go talk to Miss Storm, she’ll help you out or she’ll listen, she won’t judge.’ It’s really cool, just taking that time and really understanding what these students need, what’s going to help, how can we help to the best of our ability. I’ve noticed too with restoring harm and holding that space for these students, it’s really changed the whole entire atmosphere of the school.”

Jeff P. Godowski, a house assistant dean at Cornell University, says that he has noticed more interpersonal conflict over the past two years during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve also noticed a lot more resistance to working through, or managing, or engaging with conflict, engaging with mediation, or even talking about it with another person,” he said in a presentation on restorative practices.

He described a form of cyberbullying that he called “cyber venting,” where students complain about others on social media platforms such as Reddit or Facebook, “putting these more private or interpersonal thoughts in a wider space instead of navigating or sitting in with that conflict.”

Godowski is an advocate for restorative practices, which he described as “an emerging social science that’s rooted in indigenous practices, which aims to proactively build community, maintain right relationship, and then repair harm through reintegrative processes that happen with others rather than to or for them or not at all.”

“There’s a spectrum of informal types of interactions like effective statements or questions where we can share empathy with each other or share how we’re feeling to formal practices and formal conferences using the restorative justice framework from a criminal justice lens,” he explained.

Godowski said that a restorative practice called family group conferencing in which offenders and harmed parties voluntarily agree to participate could be used to address cyberbullying cases.

With supporters of both parties engaged in the process, the offender will share their story of what happened, and the harmed party will describe their reaction. The offender brainstorms ways that they can repair the harm, feeling supported and not ostracized.

For the victim, Godowski said, “this gives them an opportunity to share with their bully how things impacted them, get some answers as to why this thing happened. It allows them to hear an apology. It fosters voluntary forgiveness.” He said that research showed the model gave victims a sense of closure, a sense of fairness, and an overall sort of satisfaction.”

Godowski facilitates Restorative Practices Community Open Space twice a month at the Tompkins County Public Library.

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.