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.
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.”
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.