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.

Brief Guide to Youth Bullying Prevention

Nearly one in five American high school students experiences bullying while at school. A higher percentage of girls are bullied than boys. One in three lesbian, gay, or bisexual students is bullied. Victims of bullying may suffer serious and long-lasting physical, psychological, and academic effects. Those who bully also need help: they are more likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol and drugs, and engage in criminal activity.

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Representatives from more than two dozen local government agencies, community organizations, and local schools have formed the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force to explore the prevalence of youth bullying and strategies to combat it.

On the occasion of a Community Forum sponsored by the Task Force on June 15, The Sophie Fund presents the Brief Guide to Bullying Prevention. The guide highlights useful facts and figures, helpful resources on bullying prevention, and information about reporting acts of bullying, harassment, or discrimination under New York’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).

Prevalence of Youth Bullying

  • 19.0% of high school students were bullied at school in 2016-17.
  • 14.9% of high school students experienced electronic bullying.
  • More female students (22.3%) were bullied compared to male students (15.6%).
  • More female students (19.7%) were electronically bullied compared to male students (9.9%).
  • More lesbian, gay, or bisexual students (33.0%) were bullied at school than heterosexual students (17.1%) or students not sure of their sexual identity (24.3%).
  • 21.7% of New York high school students were bullied at school (higher than national average of 19.0%) in 2016-17.
  • More New York female students (24.6%) were bullied compared to male students (18.7%).
  • Nearly twice as many New York gay, lesbian, or bisexual students (34.6%) were bullied compared to heterosexual students (19.4%).
  • Tompkins County school districts reported 109 incidents of discrimination, harassment, and bullying (excluding cyberbullying), and 20 incidents of cyberbullying, in the 2017-2018 school year under the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).
  • The 2018 Communities that Care Youth Survey of schools in Tompkins County and Seneca County found that more than a third of high school students reported feeling depressed on most days.

 

Basics of Youth Bullying

Definition: “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.” Types include physical, verbal, and relational. Cyberbullying involves e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, chat rooms, gaming systems, tweeting, or social media.

Potential Psychological Effects: Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self- harming behavior (especially for girls), alcohol and drug use and dependence, aggression, involvement in violence or crime (especially for boys), emotional distress, hostility, and delinquency.

Potential Physical Effects: Immediate physical injury, sleep disorders, stomach aches, headaches, heart palpitations, dizziness, bedwetting, chronic pain, somatization (a syndrome of distressful, physical symptoms that cannot be explained by a medical cause), stress-related impact on the immune system and hormones, and impact on brain activity and functioning.

Potential Academic Effects: Impact on grades and standardized test scores starting as early as kindergarten and continuing through high school.

Bullying and Suicide: Persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior. Most young people who die by suicide have multiple risk factors.

Click here to read the Brief Guide to Youth Bullying Prevention, or click here to download a PDF.

Community Forum on Bullying @ TCPL

The newly formed Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force announced Tuesday that it will sponsor a community forum on youth bullying and harassment at the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) on June 15.

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Members of the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force

The forum will feature reports from the Task Force’s Working Group on the prevalence and impact of bullying and potential school and public programs and campaigns to address the issue. The forum will also provide an opportunity for members of the public to share knowledge and suggestions for promoting bullying-free communities.

“Working together to create communities where all young people feel safe and that they belong, the Bullying Prevention Task Force is inviting members of the public to come and learn more about the work that has been done so far and to help us envision the next steps for this regional initiative,” said Jaydn McCune, a Racker program director and forum organizer. “We hope to see anybody who has been touched by the issue of bullying, whether you are a young person, family member, community member, or provider.”

Representatives from 28 government agencies, community organizations, and local schools formed the Task Force in March to explore the prevalence of youth bullying and strategies to combat it.

“The Bullying Prevention Task Force has brought together parents, students, service providers, school personnel, and community members to better understand the resources and strategies needed to take on the serious issue of bullying,” said Bridgette Nugent, Tompkins County Youth Services Department deputy director and Task Force co-coordinator. “The Task Force is energized to take real action to address a very real problem in our community.”

The forum will be held from 10 a.m.-12 Noon in the BorgWarner Community Room of the Tompkins County Public Library. Students, parents, teachers, school administrators, social workers, and all members of the public are welcome.

 

A Film by Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Carlos Hernandez Rivera looks into the camera with all the beautiful innocence of a young man who loves science and Boy Scouts. But then his words describe two deaths—and his own determination to prevent such tragedies in the future. “I’m Carlos, and I was affected by suicide,” he says. “Two people that were close to me died within a short span of time.”

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Screenshot from The Damaging and the Uniting

So begins The Damaging and the Uniting, a short film produced, written, and directed by Hernandez Rivera, 14, to be screened at Cinemopolis June 6, about his experience of losing two friends to suicide during the current school year—Elliott Green, 16, a close buddy since Lansing Middle School, and Ryan Sibley, 14, a ninth-grade classmate this year at P-Tech Academy.

“This movie is personal,” Hernandez Rivera said before a private screening last week at P-Tech, a magnet high school/early college program in computer science and advanced manufacturing at TST BOCES. “I wanted to help, I wanted to help as many people as I can. I am motivated to help other people so they don’t go through tough times and so that suicide is not a problem anymore.”

The idea for the film came as Hernandez Rivera was developing a freshman-year capstone project. After Elliott’s death in March, Hernandez consulted with his teacher, Sunshine Miller, and decided to create a video that could raise awareness about mental health and promote suicide prevention. Then in April, as Hernandez Rivera was story boarding the film, came the terrible news that Ryan, his P-Tech science lab partner, had taken his own life.

Hernandez Rivera dedicates the film to Elliott and Ryan. He and Elliott had been pals for years. One of Hernandez’s fondest memories is of the two-day, 100-mile biking trip the duo made with another friend around Cayuga Lake last summer. They shared a passion for Boy Scouts—Elliott’s father is a scoutmaster—but were not above messing around, like the time they tried to sink each other’s canoes in a water-gun fight.

Hernandez Rivera remembers Ryan as an easy-going guy who was fun to hang around with. In the film, Hernandez Rivera includes a still image of a smiling Ryan at school wearing a “Family Guy” T-shirt. Their tight-knit class of 19 students had just taken a field trip to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. “He seemed happy on that trip,” Hernandez recalled. Ryan was an accomplished wrestler, who had recently become a Seaman recruit in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Hernandez Rivera interviews two women to further show the human face of suicide and loss—Beth Dryer, who lost a younger brother, Brian, 25; and Melissa Addy, whose son Max died by suicide at 22. “It refocused my priorities in life, time was short,” recalled Dryer, adding, after an emotional pause, “This is tough, so clearly it still has a major impact on my life.” When Hernandez Rivera asked Addy about “the one thing” she misses about her son, she touchingly replied, “I miss everything.”

Hernandez Rivera described the blow he felt after his mother told him that Elliott had passed away. “I was in a good rhythm, and then Elliott dies,” he said. “I started falling back in school, I wasn’t doing as well. Sometimes I would get lost. I would walk into a room and say, ‘Whoa, how did I get here?’ I would blank out sometimes.”

“Then I’d be like, ‘I’m here. I’m here. I got this,’” he added. “Self-motivation has got me through it. I changed when Elliot passed away. I felt like I had to do more things, I had to talk to people. To communicate with people, it is a good skill to have.”

Hernandez Rivera explained that making the film has helped in his own struggle with grief. “It has given me faith in myself, that even though there are obstacles that are huge, that we will face traumatic things in our lives, we can get back up, and keep pushing on,” he said.

Suicide is an extremely delicate and even taboo topic for schools, but Miller threw her full support behind the project. “Carlos has given me courage,” she explained. “It would have been easy to just say, ‘No, we’re not doing this.’ Adults make all the decisions, which are good in lot of ways, but we’re too quick to say, ‘Lets not talk about this.’ This has changed me. I hope Carlos’s courage can light the way for real change in our schools surrounding how we deal with suicide.”

“This is why I went into education,” said Barry Derfel, TST BOCES assistant superintendent, speaking to Hernandez Rivera at the private screening at P-Tech last week. “I am really proud of the work that you have done. This is what school should be. At P-Tech, we collaborate with families, business, and community, to create fully accessible, meaningful, and relevant curricula. I don’t think here is anything more meaningful and relevant than this, that’s culturally responsive and sustaining.”

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Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Hernandez Rivera consulted Lee-Ellen Marvin of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service about conducting the interviews used in the film. He also had the help of Ithaca filmmaker Redouane Elghazi in the filming and editing. He won the support of the P-Tech administration not only to tackle suicide in a class project—and one involving the school itself—but to go forward with a public screening at Cinemopolis, Ithaca’s first-run movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally produced films.

Hernandez Rivera’s dreams “are all over the place”— he thinks about becoming a global-warming scientist, working for NASA, or Space X, and even Tesla. For now, though, he is hoping that his film will help spread awareness about mental health.

“My goal is so that this doesn’t become an issue anymore, that suicide is a thing of the past,” he said. “We should realize that not everyone is as happy as they seem. Some people do need talking to, even if they look happy. If we’re having a bad day and we are mean to other people, just be nice.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

The Damaging and the Uniting will be screened for the public June 6 from 5-6 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. @Cinempolis, 120 East Green Street, Ithaca, NY. 14850. Admission is free of charge.

The Damaging and The Uniting

 

 

A Little Help from Your Friends

Young people are often bewildered about mental health and mental illness, and Melanie Little loves explaining the difference to them. “When I asked high school students to define mental health, some of them didn’t know what to say,” said Little, director of Youth Services at the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (MHA). “Others said it was ‘the wellbeing of the mind.’ Being mentally healthy is the ability to make positive decisions, cope with difficult emotions and enjoy one’s life, whereas mental illness is diagnosable and disrupts a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.”

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Melanie Little and the Kids First Summer Camp

Little empathizes with struggling teens. She’s been there herself. Originally from Rochester, she battled mental illness during her youth.

As Little, 27, recalls her own experiences growing up, her mental health issues were not taken seriously. Adults blamed her discontent on typical teen mood swings. She didn’t fit the stereotypes around mental illness; she earned good grades and had close connections in her life. However, this did not alleviate the pain she felt or obviate her need for help. It was not until Little attended Ithaca College in 2009 that she finally reached out to receive treatment.

Little has always been interested in social justice and in striving to make positive change in the community. She yearned to provide guidance for young people in a way that she felt had been lacking in her own upbringing. She heard about MHA’s Kids First Summer Camp, a program designed for children ages 5-18 experiencing a wide range of internal or external struggles, and quickly signed up to become a camp counselor. It was a summer job, but turned out to be the first stepping stone in a career path as a community mental health educator and advocate.

At Kids First, Little learned valuable lessons about mental health and the significance of working directly with children. “Sometimes it feels like you are getting nowhere,” said Little. “Mental health can’t be fixed overnight. But, people don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ They just need to harness their strengths, which takes time. You have to trust yourself and trust the process. You don’t always get to see the progress, but you’re planting seeds.”

Over time, Little watched as the children in the summer camp began to open up and grow closer to their peers and the adult supervisors. She learned how to discipline and set limits for the children while remaining compassionate and empathetic about the kids’ variety of personalities and needs.

“A common misconception is that all children who struggle come from broken homes or have a lower socioeconomic status,” said Little. “However, some of the children had families that were perfectly stable and loving. Mental illness can be genetic or come from other external environmental factors. Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” Little finds it rewarding to work with children who she recognizes are capable of change and growth.

As the director of Youth Services, Little is responsible for a wide variety of tasks pertaining to community outreach, education and individual peer support and advocacy. Part of her community outreach involves visiting health classes in high schools and middle schools in the Ithaca City School District as a guest speaker in its mental health unit. She provides Mental Health and Wellness 101 courses for students, faculty, and parents. She also attends Parent Teacher Association meetings to educate adults. Little supervises recreational programs for young people at the MHA-affiliated Saturday Group Respite at the YMCA. She also carries out the Youth Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) that helps to decrease and prevent intrusive or troubling behaviors, increase personal empowerment, improve quality of life and help a young person take steps to achieve their goals.

In addition, Little serves MHA as a Mental Health First Aid instructor. She works to combat the stigma around mental illness and educates adults about how to recognize signs of mental illness and actively support family members, friends, colleagues, and others in a way that is non-judgmental. She informs trainees that “no one size fits all,” meaning each individual is different and must be treated with patience and care. She teaches that recovery is possible for everyone. MHA offers regular Mental Health First Aid courses for the general public. The Sophie Fund has sponsored special MHA training sessions for members of Ithaca’s food service community.

Although there tends to be more openness, progression, and awareness pertaining to mental health advocacy, Little believes that there is still an abundance of work to be done; she says that “roughly one in three Tompkins County high school students reported feeling sad or depressed most days.” Little intends to continue providing support, guidance, and mental health education for adolescents and adults. She believes that teaching about mental health and mental illness should be a crucial part of health classes in schools to have children understand their own minds from a younger age, and to grow into empathetic and aware adults. She also wants to take her advocacy work to the next level by going with a group of youth advocates to Albany to speak to legislators about providing more funding for mental health organizations and health classes in schools.

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2019 Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.