Story House Ithaca: Sharing Stories, Building Community 

Story House Ithaca is built on a simple idea: Communities are healthier and more interesting when people get to know each other better. We think sharing stories can help make that happen.

Story House Ithaca co-directors Lesley Greene and Jonathan Miller with Nia Nunn of the Southside Community Center (L) and Christa Nuñez of The Learning Farm (R)

And not just “once upon a time” types of stories. There are many different ways to communicate experience and ideas—in fiction and nonfiction, poetry and song, journalism and documentary, theater and dance, oral history and spoken word, photography and film, puppetry and mime, graphics and animation, social media, multimedia, and media yet to be invented. We’d love for Story House to be a home for any and all of those forms of storytelling. 

We sometimes talk about Story House as if it’s an actual house. It isn’t, at least not yet. Our main inspirations are physical spaces where people come to gather—notably a wonderful building in the Netherlands called Story House Belvédère. But we don’t have the funds for our own place now, and we think there are advantages to popping up in public or online or in other people’s spaces. Who needs a building when you have the world? 

So what does Story House actually do? Since our first foray into programming in late 2019, we’ve organized an exhibition and event series on migration, a series of readings on exile and the search for home, and a panel on press freedom around the world. We produced a community-sourced video imagining life after the pandemic and a video celebrating the women and girls of a local community organization. We’ve sponsored workshops on cartooning, comedy, and songwriting, and promoted storytelling performances and a comedy show. On several occasions, we’ve collected video for other organizations eager to tell their own stories. Recently, we launched a speaker series we call “Placemakers,” featuring people and groups using art and culture to build community. 

Our most ambitious project to date is “Breaking Our Silence: Storytelling for Mental Health.” This is a series of events beginning April 23 that includes a film screening and Q&A, movement workshops on dealing with anxiety and grief, an open mic story night, storytelling performances at local churches, a panel on writing about mental illness, an advocacy workshop, and a community celebration at Ithaca High School that includes choral music, theater, dance, storytelling, and more. 

READ MORE “Breaking Our Silence”

One advantage to having such a loose definition of “story” is that we have no problem coming up with programming ideas. Lurking on our Google Drive is a spreadsheet with an ever-growing list. Several are for ongoing series, like the open mic Story Night that launches May 3, or a monthly Bar Choir, where friends and strangers can come together to learn and perform a song in three-part harmony, or a Listening Room for group deep dives into great audio, or a regular meet-up for swapping stories through song.

We’re also keen on annual or seasonal events, like a Black film festival that we hope becomes an Ithaca tradition, or events around Mother’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Indigenous People’s Day, or Mental Health Awareness Month. And we’re always game for one-off events (one of our favorites is a wide-open show-and-tell called This Thing I Did).

And we’re not just about events! With or without our own facility, we’d love to become a maker space for storytellers in any medium, where folks can work on projects together, or teach and learn and develop new skills. 

Which leads to another big idea behind Story House. It’s not about us. The Ithaca area is full of amazing groups and talented people. We’re happy to create and present original programming, but we see our greatest value as a catalyst and connector. Everyone has stories to tell, and we’d like to help them tell them. That may mean organizing a workshop or course, or helping with fundraising or planning or publicizing an event. Or it may just mean providing a soapbox and microphone and stepping out of the way. 

Story House Ithaca is a project of the nonprofit Center for Transformative Action. In all our programs and activities, we are committed to creating inclusive spaces that welcome diversity. We strive to foster interactions between people of different cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, with the goal of working toward shared understanding and a more equitable, anti-racist society.

If you’d like to be involved, or if you have an idea for a program, don’t be a stranger!

By Jonathan Miller and Lesley Greene

Jonathan Miller and Lesley Greene are the co-directors of Story House Ithaca. Miller is a journalist and documentary producer, and a board member of Ithaca City of Asylum. Greene is a playwright and theater producer, and the co-founder and co-organizer of Porchfest.

For more information, go to Story House Ithaca’s website. Send program ideas through the website’s “Pitch Us” form, or email info@storyhouseithaca.org. Follow Story House Ithaca on Facebook and Instagram

Five Years After The Watershed Declaration

Five Aprils ago, The Sophie Fund organized a meeting of community mental health stakeholders representing 18 governmental and non-profit organizations from Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the campuses of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Co-Founder Scott MacLeod introduced The Sophie Fund to the community, explaining that it was established in memory of his daughter who died by suicide in Ithaca the previous year, and outlining its mission to support mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca area.

Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York, announced plans to convene a “key stakeholders” with the aim of establishing a suicide prevention coalition in Tompkins County.

At the close of the April 17, 2017 meeting, the assembled stakeholders adopted a solemn resolution. It was dubbed The Watershed Declaration, as the meeting was hosted by The Watershed, a new downtown watering hole owned by Sophie’s friend and former colleague.

The declaration reads:

“We the assembled mental health stakeholders of the greater Ithaca community and Tompkins County recognize suicide as a serious public health concern. Today we renew our commitment to suicide prevention and pledge to intensify efforts toward saving lives and bringing hope to those struggling with suicide thoughts or affected by suicide loss.”

How did that pledge turn out? The results are mixed.

Since The Watershed Declaration was adopted, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. There is anecdotal evidence of a spike in local suicides, including those on college campuses, in 2021 and 2022. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34.

GET INVOLVED: Interested to join the cause of suicide prevention? Email The Sophie Fund at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com

In June 2017, then Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation in support of The Watershed Declaration, and the Tompkins County Legislature proclaimed September 2017 to be The Watershed Declaration Month.

Led by Tompkins County Mental Health Services, 40 local mental health leaders came together in July 2017 and launched the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

In October 2017, The Sophie Fund organized an expert briefing at the Statler Hotel for senior healthcare administrators throughout Tompkins County; the topic was the Zero Suicide Model, which is designed to improve suicide prevention measures in healthcare systems.

Eight months later, the Suicide Prevention Coalition adopted Zero Suicide as its policy; eight healthcare providers stepped up to declare themselves “Zero Suicide Champions,” pledging to explore implementation of the model. In July 2018, the county legislature unanimously passed a resolution to support Zero Suicide, calling on local healthcare and behavioral healthcare providers to follow the model’s systematic clinical approach to preventing suicides.

Coalition work toward drafting a strategic plan, creating a leadership team, expanding membership, conducting outreach, and following up on Zero Suicide implementation badly drifted in 2020; this was partly due to leadership transitions throughout the county’s healthcare agencies, as well as disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coalition resumed monthly meetings in February 2021, elected Sally Manning of Racker as convener, and resumed work on a strategic plan.

In February 2022, then coalition 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.

The five-point plan calls for using data to inform suicide prevention strategies; advancing the Zero Suicide Model in healthcare; reducing suicide in the youth population; reducing access to lethal means; and advocating for policies and practices to prevent suicide. The coalition has formed work groups to drive efforts in all five areas.

For its part, The Sophie Fund re-launched its Zero Suicide Initiative with a series of presentations and trainings to reinvigorate work on the model in Tompkins County.

On November 16 The Sophie Fund hosted “Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Healthcare,” an expert briefing for top healthcare leaders by Jenna Heise, director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York.

This was followed on March 9 with “Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A Clinical Primer for Behavioral Health Providers,” a training with national suicide prevention leaders hosted by The Wellness Institute.

The Sophie Fund on March 24 hosted “Implementation of Zero Suicide,” a suicide prevention presentation for front line managers representing 10 leading healthcare providers in Tompkins County; it was led by Tammy Weppelman, the State Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and Mike Olson, the crisis program manager at My Health My Resources, an agency currently implementing the model in in Tarrant County, Texas.

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.

Finally, in June Jenna Heise of the Suicide Prevention Center of New York will return to Ithaca for a roundtable discussion with top healthcare leaders on Zero Suicide implementation progress.

Advancing “Zero Suicide” in Tompkins County

The Sophie Fund on March 24 hosted “Implementation of Zero Suicide,” a suicide prevention presentation for front line managers representing 10 leading healthcare providers in Tompkins County.

Tammy Weppelman, the State Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, outlined the seven elements involved in implementing the Zero Suicide Model. Weppelman was joined in her presentation by Mike Olson, the crisis program manager at My Health My Resources, an agency currently implementing the model in in Tarrant County, Texas.

The Zero Suicide Model is designed to eliminate gaps in systems of care for treating patients experiencing suicidal behaviors; research has shown that more than 80 percent of people who died by suicide had seen a healthcare provider in the previous 12 months, almost 50 percent within a month of their death, and more than 20 percent within their final week of life.

“Suicide prevention is a core function of the organization, it’s everybody’s business,” Weppelman said. “Suicide is preventable. The culture in your organization is a just culture, which means that you look at suicide as a system failure rather than an individual failure. It’s not an issue with a specific clinician or something that one person did that led to someone dying by suicide. But, collectively, as a organization, or as a system, what can we do better to prevent suicide.”

LEARN MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County

Weppelman said that leadership, the first element of the model, entails a healthcare provider creating an implementation team. She said it was essential that the team include top leadership decision-makers as well as individuals within the organization who are personally passionate about preventing suicide.

“Leaders are easily drawn to other priorities,” she explained. “But the passion on your implementation team, they’re not going to be drawn to other priorities. They’re going to keep that team driving forward.”

Olson discussed evidence-based training as a second element of Zero Suicide, “making sure that especially your direct care staff, or your front line staff, is competent in suicide prevention, but also confident in their ability to identify suicide risk and respond to that risk appropriately.”

He said that training provides skills for universal screening for suicide risk, assessment of treatment needs, and safety planning. A tangible first step, he added, calls for healthcare organizations to administer a workforce survey about suicide prevention capabilities at least every two to three years.

Weppelman reviewed a third element, identifying suicide risk. In all healthcare settings, she explained, “we want to do universal screening, screening every person, every visit, every time.” A recommended tangible first step, she said, is choosing a screening tool, such as C-SSRS or ASQ.

“In my experience, people don’t come out and say they’re having thoughts of suicide without somebody asking them,” she explained. “If you do ask, most of the time they’re honest, because they know that it’s a safe place or a safe person to talk to. So the the benefit of universal screening is that if you ask, you’re going to catch people. And if you don’t ask, you’re not.”

“I’ve heard somebody say, ‘It seems like a lot. What if somebody comes in every week? You ask them every week about suicide?’ Yes, it’s kind of like every time you go to the doctor you get your blood pressure taken, you get your temperature taken. Asking about suicide is like a mental health vital sign.”

The next element of Zero Suicide is to engage people who screen for high risk in a care management plan, a clinical pathway, Olson said. He said that this involves developing an individual safety plan with the patient, such as one using the Brown-Stanley Safety Plan template, that provides quick tips for self-care in a crisis, emergency contact information, and a reminder to remove access to any lethal means. Care management will also entail ongoing risk assessment and procedures for follow up care, he said.

Weppelman said that another element is using evidence-based treatment interventions. She explained that Zero Suicide calls for interventions that are specific to reducing suicide risk, as opposed to treatments for illnesses such as depression that are thought to be related to suicide. She said that recognized suicide-specific interventions include Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS); Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT); and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP).

Olson said that a sixth element focuses on the healthcare organization’s capacity to manage suicide risk during transitions in care. He said this includes supporting individuals transitioning from the emergency department or psychiatric hospitals; those who miss appointments or withdraw from care; and individuals transitioning to a new service provider.

He said that the transition element has been the trickiest for his agency. “Services are optional, we can’t force patients to to engage in services if they don’t want to,” he said.

Yet, Olson said, Zero Suicide calls for reengaging patients through “caring contacts”—“very basic correspondence just saying, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen you at the clinic in a while, you know we’re here for you if you need us.’” He said it also calls for “warm handoffs” to onward providers, so the patient “doesn’t fall through the cracks during that transition period.” He said his agency utilizes the Care Coordination Agreements and Care Transitions model for “making sure there’s timely follow up after any type of discharge from the hospital.”

“Individuals are 273 percent more likely to die by suicide within 30 days of a care transition, so these times are so super important,” Weppelman added.

Weppelman recalled her experience working in crisis services at a Dallas-Fort Worth area community mental health center that implemented Zero Suicide. She said that the center established memorandums of understanding with local hospitals so that when they discharged a patient in need of psychiatric follow-up for outpatient services, “they would be direct dropped to our door—within an hour of discharge, we would be seeing them.” When somebody presented at the emergency department after a suicide attempt, the center would dispatch a mobile crisis team to follow up, she said.

The seventh Zero Suicide element is continuous quality improvement. Weppelman said that this entails the use of data, keeping track of suicide deaths and suicide attempts within a provider’s system. She said that another aspect of improvement is developing a Zero Suicide implementation plan, starting with small goals that can be more easily achieved. She suggested doing one thing to drive efforts forward in the next 30 days, and then setting three goals for the next 90 days, and three goals for the next year.

“It’s not an initiative that you start today, and you end next week,” she explained. “It’s always a continuous quality improvement project.”

The presentation for front line managers was the third in a series of presentations and trainings on Zero Suicide hosted by The Sophie Fund.

It was attended by representatives from leading healthcare providers, including: Tompkins County Mental Health Services; Cayuga Medical Center; Cayuga Health Partners; Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service; Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca; Guthrie Cortland Medical Center; Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County; Cornell Health and its Counseling & Psychological Services; Center for Counseling and Psychiatric Services at Ithaca College; and Health and Wellness Services and Mental Health Counseling at Tompkins Cortland Community College. The presentation was also attended by Sally Manning, convener of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Previous events included “Call to Action: Suicide Prevention in Healthcare,” an expert briefing on the Zero Suicide Model for Tompkins County healthcare leaders on November 16 by Jenna Heise, Director of Suicide Prevention Implementation at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York; and “Understanding, Identifying, and Addressing Suicide Risk: A Clinical Primer for Behavioral Health Providers” on March 9 by The Wellness Institute.

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 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; implementation of the Zero Suicide Model is one of the plan’s main objectives.

Zero Suicide is the healthcare pillar of “1,700 Too Many: New York State’s Suicide Prevention Plan 2016–17,” as well as of the 2021 “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.”

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