Exploring Strategies to Stop Bullying

Surveying students about the prevalence of bullying. Training teachers, coaches, parents, and young people on how to respond. Encouraging youth to be upstanders. Holding annual Bullying Prevention Day activities to spread awareness. These were a few of the ideas discussed Saturday at a two-hour Community Forum sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force.

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Celia Clement reviewing feedback on school bullying

The Task Force held the forum to introduce its work to the public and to solicit ideas from the community on strategies to address bullying. More than two dozen government agencies, community organizations, and representatives from the county’s six school districts formed the Task Force in March.

“A lot of these conversations and diving deep into these topics can become very personal and very painful, which we want to honor,” said Nigel Gannon, a Healthy Living Program Specialist for New York State 4-H Youth Development, who moderated the forum.

“We have to develop spaces where we can have those emotions in a positive way. Remember that we are all feeling the same [about bullying], in some way, as individuals, as loved ones, as community members. We are not happy to be here, I think we are hopeful to be here. We’re going to help the Task Force get the information they need to try to move this forward.”

Scott MacLeod of The Sophie Fund kicked off presentations by Task Force working groups by reviewing basic information about bullying in national, regional, and local contexts.

He noted the federal government’s definition of bullying, and how it should be distinguished from other behaviors such as conflict, rudeness, and meanness:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

MacLeod explained how bullying has psychological, physical, and academic effects, and adversely affects youth who are bullied as well as those who engage in bullying. He said that youth who are perceived as different, especially LGBTQ children, are at greater risk. Persistent bullying, he added, can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior. MacLeod said that while there is no federal stature that expressly outlaws bullying, New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) came into force in 2012 to protect students from bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Citing statistics, MacLeod’s report said 19 percent of American high school students are bullied, and 14.9 percent experience cyberbullying. He said that data for the 2017-2018 school year, most likely reflecting underreporting, showed that Tompkins County school districts had 109 incidents of discrimination, harassment, and bullying , and 20 incidents of cyberbullying.

Celia Clement, a retired school social worker and now an independent consultant, delivered a report on potential approaches for addressing bullying in schools. She identified five areas for attention:

  • Communication: Families are not always getting the information they need about bullying definition, prevention, intervention, education, district policies and the laws involved such as the Dignity for All Students Act.
  • Education: Families and school staff want help around recognizing signs that their youth are struggling with mental health challenges, social challenges, or bullying. Students need to be educated as well around what is bullying, recognizing the difference between peer conflict and bullying, knowing the warning signs when adults need to be informed, and ways to intervene effectively when they see bullying, harassment or cyber bullying, or suicide warning signs.
  • Prevention: The key to successful intervention models is to include students as the core drivers when building programs that promote positive school cultures. There are existing local programs that can serve as models: Friendship Assistance Brigade, Stars, Be the One, and Welcoming Allies and Mentors.
  • Intervention: There is a need to educate school teaching staff and administrators about best practice around intervention when situations of conflict, bullying, harassment and cyber bullying occur—such as restorative practices as a way to support the target and to help the aggressor make changes. There is a need to offer strategies and tools to work with families in a way that promotes outcomes where everyone feels good about the process of addressing conflict and bullying situations.
  • Assessment: Schools need to conduct surveys about bullying to inform decisions for addressing the problem.

MacLeod also delivered a working group report on potential approaches for addressing bullying outside school property. He cited numerous ideas including holding an annual community forum and student leadership summit, providing training and information workshops, and launching awareness projects such as an annual Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Day.

Beth Hogan, a member of the Task Force’s Family Advisory Group, delivered a working group report on the concerns of parents surveyed by the group. She said parents experienced a significant increase in stress over bullying, and felt that they themselves were effectively being bullied. The parents believed that bullying was causing heightened levels of anxiety and depression in children, she added.

Hogan said that schools were reactive rather than proactive, and that mental health services inside and outside schools were inadequate. Hogan’s report called for frequent communication about bullying, including about the Dignity Act, to staff, families, and students. She said youth and parent involvement in bullying prevention should be a priority, and that the work should begin in the elementary grades.

Sophie Callister, a former student in the Lansing Central School District and now a student at Ithaca College, is the coordinator of the Task Force’s Student Advisory Group. “The bullying task force is something that means a huge deal to me because from third grade all through my school career it was a huge problem,” she said. “I want kids to feel like there is somebody willing to listen and help them and that they feel safe every day. I never really felt safe in school.” She said that rather than school counselors or psychologists the only person she felt she could go to for support was a math teacher. Callister said a goal of the task force is “to get the community involved—parents, students, everybody. This is not a time to be quiet.”

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Community Forum on Bullying Prevention, Tompkins County Public Library

Forum participants provided feedback and engaged in discussion in breakout sessions. On school programs, participants argued that schools under report bullying incidents and do not create safe spaces for students. They noted that teachers and coaches themselves sometimes engage in bullying by humiliating students/athletes. Participants suggested strategies including peer mentors and giving students tools for confronting bullying.

For public action, participants proposed holding local public forums within the county’s six school districts to better encourage family participation in bullying prevention initiatives. Participants supported the idea of providing training and workshop opportunities to educate the community about bullying and prevention methods, and called for a centralized resource to provide information about the Dignity Act and how to file complaints about bullying incidents. The participants also endorsed exploring synergies with existing programs and activities, such as the “Be the One” campaign.

Participants who focused on family and student involvement emphasized the need for developing a common language to understand bullying, and the importance of student-led initiatives for success. They noted that it was essential to view those who bully as people also in need of support to address the underlying causes of their behavior.

Some participants called for greater attention to students who may be experiencing suicide ideation, noting that four young people from the Lansing community have died by suicide in just the past year. Participants highlighted opportunities for students to become involved by forming chapters of organizations such as Active Minds and Sources of Strength, and participating in activities such as Mental Health First Aid for Teens.

Click here to read Becky Mehorter’s Ithaca Voice article on the Community Forum, “Task force brings community together to address bullying in local schools.”

Click here to read Matt Steecker’s article in the Ithaca Journal on the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force, “Finding solutions to bullying: Task force to hold forum at library.”

Click here to visit The Sophie Fund’s website resource page on bullying prevention.

“Be the One”: Caring Connections in Tompkins County

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To promote the occasion in 2018, members of the Collaborative Solutions Network (CSN), a broad association supporting family mental health throughout Tompkins County, came up with a campaign. They called it “Be the One,” and the goal was “to spread the belief that everyone needs a safe, secure and nurturing relationship.”

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Lansing Middle School students join the “Be the One” movement

Thanks to community enthusiasm, “Be the One” turned out to be much more than a fleeting slogan. More than 100 people representing some 30 organizations came together at The Space @ GreenStar on December 10 to formally re-launch “Be the One” as an ongoing public wellness project to promote supportive relationships. The New York State Office of Mental Health provided funding, and Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation declaring 2019 “Be the One Year in the City of Ithaca.” Ithaca Voice, Ithaca Times, and The Lansing Star have featured the campaign in their news reports.

Students throughout the county are wearing “Be the One” T-shirts and hoodies, and matching motivational silicone wristbands, and sharing “Be the One” stories in classroom discussions. “Be the One” has a website with information explaining the campaign and toolkits and downloadable posters for bringing it to schools and community groups, and an active Facebook page and Twitter account sharing updates about “Be the One,” news about community wellness events, and inspirational stories from the world’s headlines. There’s even a “Be the One” song, which goes in part:

Imagine what this world could be

If kindness led each thought and deed

Building our communities

In peace and love and harmony.

In a time of rising anxiety and depression, “Be the One” has resonated with its message that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, based on feeling cared for and connected to other people, build resilience in individuals and communities. Tompkins County has been rocked by three teen suicides in the past year. “Stress can get in the way of letting relationships happen,” Jaydn McCune, a program director at Racker and coordinator of CSN, said in an interview with The Sophie Fund. “But when we have someone to relate to, we can then gain a sense of lightness and possibility.”

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Lansing Central School District decoration

Superintendent Chris Pettograsso has overseen an enthusiastic rollout of “Be the One” in the Lansing Central School District. In late January, two campaign volunteers held sessions helping Lansing students share how they and their teachers could “Be the One.” In mid-March, Lansing Middle School students ran a program to introduce “Be the One” to fifth graders. On March 26, Lansing held a special session to encourage teachers and staff to embrace the “Be the One” ethos and improve empathy and support for students.

“Students have gained much more self-awareness of who really care for them and how they can care for others, and they have been very open to talking to their teachers about that,” Pettograsso told The Sophie Fund. On March 23, a “Be the One Lansing Team” took part in the 6th Annual Ithaca Polar Plunge at Taughannock Falls State Park Beach to support the Special Olympics.

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Lansing Middle School students sharing the “Be the One” campaign with 5th graders

Liz Klohmann, director of the Ithaca Youth Bureau and a member of the campaign planning committee, said the organizers are developing a common curriculum “that can be used by teachers and youth directors all throughout the Tompkins County community.” The campaign encourages schools to introduce “Be the One” in health class, invite students to write stories about their own “Be the One” experiences for English class, create “Be the One” awards, and create community outreach projects around the campaign theme.

Community members have begun posting experiences about their “Ones” on the “Be the One” website—about inspirational teachers, friends, an family members. An anonymously posted story recounted the relationship between a teacher and her elementary school teacher and their re-connection decades later.

“As a fourth grader I’d been happy and alive. Not so as an adult— I felt boxed-in and very, very sad. Mrs. N and I got into a pattern of visiting every week. I could tell her anything. Sometimes we sat and said very little. At one point she said to me, ‘I’m not worried about you, B. You have such vast inner resources.’ That was lifeline!”

McCune tells a story of how “Be the One” helped a teacher change course in the Dryden Central School District. The teacher was complaining to a colleague about a fourth-grader who was driving her up the wall with misbehavior in her classroom all day. She then noticed another teacher wearing a “Be the One” bracelet. “She stopped and realized that she needed to ‘be the one’ for her student,” McCune said. “The teacher realized that her student was having trouble, and that she wanted to do her best to help him.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photo credits: Courtesy of the Lansing Central School District

Lansing Forum on Mental Health and Bullying

Mental health and bullying continue to be important issues facing our Lansing School District. The schools as well as the Board of Education are taking them very seriously. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is being taught in health classes. A survey is being sent out to ask the students for their views on the bullying issue and ideas on how to handle it.

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Yet, it is clear that what is currently being done is not sufficient. Many feel that the problem is getting worse. We need to address these issues as a community and work toward solutions. Together, we need to do what we can to create a safer and mentally healthy school community. It takes a village.

Toward that end, a community forum, “Mental Health & Bullying” will be held on Thursday October 18 at 7 p.m. in the Lansing Town Hall. This is an opportunity for all of us to share experiences, discuss perspectives, and work on solutions.

Among the ideas we might consider is The Be Kind People Project, which offers “unique and culturally relevant youth development programs that effectively combine academics, character education, nutrition, fitness, digital citizenship, civic awareness, teacher appreciation, and family engagement.”

Another idea worth discussing is launching a student mental health club, a platform being used at hundreds of secondary schools and on college campuses across the country. Newfield High School has a very active chapter of Sources of Strength. Ithaca High School is in the process of establishing a high school chapter of Active Minds, and Ithaca College has long had a robust chapter as well. A recent study found that across 12 California colleges, student-run efforts were associated with increased awareness of mental health issues, reduced stigma, and a rise in “helping behaviors.”

—By Beth Hogan Callister