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.

How Schools Can Address Bullying

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer for the Ithaca City School District, urges school personnel to take measures when they see serious acts of discrimination, harassment, or bullying that may be violations of New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act.

Amanda Verba, chief operations officer, Ithaca City School District

Verba spoke at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27 sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

“When we see something, we have to do something, when it’s around the Dignity Act work,” Verba explained. “Kids do have an opportunity to work it out. When they run out of skills, when it really looks like it’s creating this threshold of harm, that’s when we need to say something. Everyone has a right to not just be welcomed, but to belong. We want to be in a community with one another.”

In a presentation titled “Creating Safe and Caring Schools via the Dignity Act,” Verba reviewed the purpose, definition, and operation of DASA, as the law is known.

The goal of DASA, she said, “is to create a safe and supportive school climate where students can learn and focus, rather than fear being discriminated against, harassed, or bullied.” She noted that the act took effect in 2012, and was amended in 2013 to include cyberbullying and again in 2018 to include gender identity and expression.

She said DASA protects against discrimination based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, sex, gender, and “other.”

Harassment is defined as the “creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by verbal and non-verbal threats, intimidation, or abuse,” she said. More specifically, she added, the behavior qualifies as harassment if it interferes with a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits, or mental, emotional, and/or physical well being; causes fear for personal safety or may cause physical or emotional injury; or risks disruption of the school environment.

Bullying, Verba said, is defined as using an imbalance of power, involving the use of physical strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing information, to hurt or control another person; occurring or having the potential to occur more than once; with the intent to cause harm. Cyberbullying is simply bullying that occurs through any form of electronic communication, she said.

WATCH: “Dignity for All Students Act (DASA)”

Verba explained that under DASA school staff have a responsibility to provide instruction to students on civility, citizenship, and character to address the prohibition against harassment, discrimination, and bullying and cyberbullying. School staff must orally report incidents within one school day, and follow up with a written report within two school days, she added.

As for school administrators, they must provide students, staff, and families with information about DASA and how to contact the school’s DASA coordinator, Verba explained. She said administrators lead or supervise investigations into all reports of DASA violations.

A case rises to the level of a “material incident” that is reported to the state, Verba explained, if  it is a single or series of related incidents involving harassment, discrimination, or bullying that created a hostile environment to interfere with education, well being, or physical safety.

Verba acknowledged that school personnel sometimes grapple with the line between bullying by an aggressor against a victim, and conflict where all parties are affected. And, she added, there is a line between bullying and behavior that, though unfortunate and needs to be addressed, is rude or mean.

She said that when school personnel interpret incidents of rudeness or meanness as bullying, they may fail to give students the space to work out the issues on their own. “Many of us have done some self-reflection on that,” she said. “I probably called things or misdiagnosed things because of my urgency to make something right.”

Another struggle Verba described is when parents and school personnel disagree about the seriousness of an incident affecting their child. “Parents will respond often in a way of, ‘You don’t care about my child, you’re not going to do anything,’” Verba said. “It does not build the bridge of relationship and parent as partner.”

She stressed that it is important for schools to respect the lived experience of the child and parents. “I really need these parents as my partners,” she said. “If they’re telling me that this met the threshold of something that created a hostile environment for their young person, am I really going to tell them that they’re wrong?”

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

DOWNLOAD Dignity for All Students Act in Tompkins County

What Parents Can Do About Cyberbullying

Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, advises Tompkins County parents to “take a deep breath” and consider the appropriate response when their child is a victim of cyberbullying.

Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center

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

“When your child is a target, stay calm, and make sure that they’re safe,” he said in a presentation titled “Addressing Cyberbullying and Unwise Social Media Use: The Role of Parents, Youth, and the Community.”

In cases of severe cyberbullying, he advised, parents should collect evidence, including taking screenshots of the offending behavior. Parents can contact their child’s school, but should be aware of constraints such as confidentiality rules and concerns about reputational liability.

“I know we want answers immediately, but give them time to do their investigation, to follow the rules,” he said. “They’re not going to be able to tell you how they discipline the aggressor after the investigation.”

Hinduja said that parents should resist any urge to vent about the bullying on social media. In severe cases, he added, parents can consider contacting the relevant social media platform or even the police.

Hinduja suggests options in which a bullied child can respond in empowering ways that promote agency, such as using the tools in social media apps to control who can see posts and who can comment on them. Kids can also be encouraged to memorize self-affirming phrases to keep in mind when they are feeling targeted.

WATCH: “Addressing Cyberbullying and Unwise Social Media Use: The Role of Parents, Youth, and the Community”

Research indicates that bullying is a problem that can seriously impact a child’s development, Hinduja said. He cited surveys where more than half of those who dealt with cyberbullying said it deeply affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school.

He cited a national survey of 9-12-year-olds where 51.7 percent of boys and 48 percent girls reported being bullied at school; and 14.8 percent of boys and 14.2 percent of girls reported being the targets of cyberbullying. Surveys of 13-17-year-olds indicated that cyberbullying is on the rise in that age group, with 16.7 percent reporting being a victim in 2016, 17.2 percent in 2019, and 23.2 percent in 2021.

Hinduja cautioned parents not to overreact if they discover that their child is being bullied “Many forms of bullying and cyberbullying are minor, they’re mild, they’re moderate, they’re not severe,” he said. “Most of it is mild name calling, insults, rumors, a mean-spirited comment, etc. We would want our children to understand that this is just part and parcel of life. You’re going to deal with it in the workforce with with co-workers.”

Hinduja advises parents not to get overwhelmed trying to learn about every digital platform their child may be using, but to stay focused on inculcating the family’s values for raising decent human beings with a moral compass.

When it comes to addressing a cyberbullying problem, he said, it is important for parents to know how to best communicate with their child and to foster resiliency and empathy in them.

For example, he cautioned against just telling a child to stay off a social media platform, or stay off their smart phone altogether. “That’s very dismissive,” he explained. “It trivializes what’s going on and it doesn’t help the problem. Youth move seamlessly from one realm to the other, offline, online. There’s no distinction, it’s just their life.”

Hinduja encourages parents to find ways to be involved in their child’s digital world in the way they may be fully involved in their offline lives. One example may be slowly engaging the child in non-judgmental discussions about social media use to learn about how they are living in that digital space for better and worse.

Hinduja stresses the importance of promoting resiliency and empathy in children, which can help young people put bullying behavior into perspective and lower the temperature of emotional responses. Children can learn to model resiliency through books and films, and he encourages parents to discuss the stories with them afterwards .

“For kids with the highest levels of resilience, when they were bullied it didn’t deeply affect them emotionally, it didn’t make them really struggle at school,” he said. “Whereas those with the lowest levels of resilience when they were bullied or cyberbullied, it wrecked them and they weren’t really able to function well at all in school. They struggled mightily when it comes to their emotions.”

Hinduja recommends that parents model good online and digital device behavior for their kids, and set up some household rules such as evening cut off times and linking phone use to school performance.

Task Force Co-Coordinator Bridgette Nugent said that the symposium was “an effort to not only bring awareness to the issue of bullying with a focus on cyberbullying but to hear from both national and local experts on strategies to put into practice whether you are a parent professional or a concerned community member.”

She cited a 2021 report indicating that 21 percent of Tompkins County middle school and high school students participating in a survey reported being bullied on school property and 21 percent reported being bullied bullied electronically via social media, texts, and emails. Only 37 percent of respondents reported that in general students treat each other with respect, she said.

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

2022 “Make Kindness Go Viral!” Contest

Attention all students in Tompkins County! Do you take kindness for granted? What does kindness mean to you? What does kindness look like?

Help make the world a better place—and go for a prize—by entering the “Make Kindness Go Viral!” contest in January! You can create original artwork, or you can write a short essay, that expresses your own ideas or experiences regarding kindness.

According to the competition guidelines, participants in the artwork competition are invited to submit an original poster or social media graphic, created in any art medium, illustrating kindness.

For the essay competition, participants must submit an original essay of 500 words or less about their “next act of kindness.”

The contest is open to all students. Awards will be presented in separate elementary school, middle school, and high school categories.

The deadline for submissions is January 17, and the awards will be announced at the virtual 2022 United in Kindness Symposium on January 27.

Go to The Sophie Fund to download the Registration Form today!

The contest is sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

Tompkins Symposium on Cyberbullying Coming January 27

The Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force announced December 20 that it will sponsor “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” a day-long symposium via Zoom on January 27, 2022.

The task force’s 2022 United in Kindness event will feature presentations by Sameer Hinduja, author and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and Amanda Verba, chief operations officer for the Ithaca City School District, and other local experts on child development.

The symposium will also include “Tompkins Youth Speak Out,” a breakout session from 7-8 p.m. with students from area schools discussing how they handle cyberbullying. The session will be moderated by Melanie Little, director of Education and Youth Services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

All sessions are open to parents, students, school administrators, teachers, counselors, social workers, athletic coaches, and resource officers; and staff at after-school programs and independent youth organizations. Registration to attend any of the sessions is available at: https://bit.ly/3y2DjRu. More information about the symposium is available at: https://thesophiefund.org/bullying/.

“While cyberbullying has been a topic of concern for several years, the shift to online learning and further social isolation of our county’s young people as a result of the pandemic has only further highlighted the need for a robust response to issues of online bullying and harassment,” said Bridgette Nugent, deputy director of the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and co-coordinator of the Task Force.

Added Task Force member Celia Clement, a social worker for 32 years in the Ithaca City School District with a focus on developing student-led programs to create kind, inclusive, and safe school communities K-12:

“Youth only tell their parents that they are having social problems online around 10 percent of the time. We need to give students tools to address cyberbullying, how to handle it, how to be helpful bystanders when they witness other youth being bullied, and when to seek help from adults. There are many potential adverse mental health and social consequences, both short term and long term, for the victims, the perpetrators, and the onlookers.”

The task force also announced the launch of “Make Kindness Go Viral!,” a contest for Tompkins County K-12 students to express kindness in artwork or writing. Contest registration forms are available at https://thesophiefund.org/bullying/.  Deadline for submissions is January 17. Awards will be announced during the United in Kindness Symposium.

“The contest invites submissions from all Tompkins County youth to underscore the importance of building and nurturing a community of kindness where bullying is not tolerated,” Nugent said.

The Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force was formed in 2019 by stakeholders from government agencies, community organizations, and schools to explore the prevalence of youth bullying and strategies to combat it.