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

“Breaking Our Silence”

The Sophie Fund is sponsoring “Breaking Our Silence: Storytelling for Mental Health,” a series of film, theater, dance, literature, music, and other activities in Ithaca beginning April 23 “to increase empathy, build understanding, and help lift the shroud of shame and secrecy around mental illness.”

The series is organized by Story House Ithaca, a new project of the Center for Transformative Action that aims “to bring people together to share, study, create, and enjoy stories in all their forms.”

“Mental health is central to so many of our lives, but we rarely talk about it in public,” said Story House Ithaca Co-Director Jonathan Miller. “Sharing our stories, in whatever form, is good for us and for the people we care about.”

Co-Director Lesley Greene agreed: “We’ve got so many amazing community partners offering such a wide range of activities. I hope everyone will find something to connect with.”

Check out Story House Ithaca’s “Breaking our Silence” website for more information about the schedule and registration. “Breaking Our Silence” is also sponsored by the Community Arts Partnership, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Finger Lakes

Saturday April 23, 3:30–5 pm, Community School of Music and Arts

“Acknowledging and Releasing our Stories of Anxiety”

A workshop led by Kathy Lucas and Megan Omohundro focuses on introspection as it relates to static energy of the body, mind and spirit. It brings awareness to stored tension and the manifestations of anxiety in the body by exploring breath work, gestures, physical shapes, movement pathways and verbal expression.

Saturday April 30, 3:30–5 pm, Community School of Music and Arts

“Feeling, Honoring, and Releasing our Stories of Grief”

A dance and movement workshop led by Kathy Lucas and Megan Omohundro focuses on introspection as it relates to static energy of the body, mind, and spirit. It brings awareness to stored tension and the manifestations of grief in the body by exploring breath work, gestures, physical shapes, movement pathways, and verbal expression.

Monday May 2, 6:30–8:30 pm, via Zoom

“NAMI Smarts for Advocacy”

A hands-on advocacy training program from the National Alliance on Mental Illness that helps people living with mental disorders, friends, and family transform their passion and lived experience into skillful grassroots advocacy. The program will guide participants through a step-by-step, skill-building method designed for those who are new to advocacy as well as individuals with years of experience. 

Tuesday May 3, 5:30–7 pm, Argos Inn Solarium

“Story Night”

An informal gathering with games and an open mic with storytellers and story lovers hosted by Regi Carpenter, author, performer, and pioneer in Narrative Medicine.

May 6-15, Hangar Theater

“Delia Divided”

A Civic Ensemble production written by Judy K. Tate in collaboration with the ReEntry Theatre Program and directed by Gabriella da Silva Carr tells the story of a young black woman who grew up in the foster care system and now as a young adult grapples with the intersecting forces of mental health, racism, and incarceration.

Sunday May 8, 10 am, First Unitarian Society of Ithaca

“Regi Carpenter: Breaking the Singular Story”

A sermon on the complexity of mental illness and the people who are affected by it, by Regi Carpenter, author, performer, and pioneer in Narrative Medicine.

Sunday May 8, 7-8 pm, via Zoom

“Taboo, Interrupted: Writing Mental Illness”

Ithaca College writing faculty members Eleanor Henderson, Joan Marcus, Jaime Warburton, and Katie Marks participate in a Spring Writes Literary Festival panel discussion on approaches to writing about mental illness that are accurate, non-exploitative, and compelling.

Tuesday May 10, 5:30–7 pm, Durland Alternatives Library, Anabel Taylor Hall, Cornell University

“Prisoner Express”

A show-and-tell presentation by Gary Fine on Prisoner Express, a program he founded to help break the isolation and despair of incarcerated people through writing, reading, and art.   

Sunday May 15, 4-6:30 pm, Cinemopolis

“BEDLAM”

Screening of an award-winning documentary about the mental health system followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Peter Miller.

Saturday May 21, 7:30 pm, Kulp Auditorium, Ithaca High School

“Breaking Our Silence: A Performance and Celebration”

An evening of performances and readings by storyteller Regi Carpenter, dancers Kathy Lucas and Megan Omohundro, mental health activist Beth McGee, Civic Ensemble, and the Ithaca High School Choir led by Kristin Zaryski.

Sunday May 22, 10 a.m., First Baptist Church in Ithaca

“Regi Carpenter: Breaking the Singular Story”

A sermon on the complexity of mental illness and the people who are affected by it, by Regi Carpenter, author, performer, and pioneer in Narrative Medicine.

Are Therapists Sufficiently Trained to Treat Suicidal Patients?

The headline of a USA Today article two years ago posed a troubling question: “We tell suicidal people to go to therapy. So why are therapists rarely trained in suicide?”

The article by Alia Dastagir noted that people experiencing suicidal thoughts are routinely advised, “See a therapist.” Yet, the article reported, “training for mental health practitioners who treat suicidal patients—psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, among others—is dangerously inadequate.”

Dastagir quotes this concerning statement from Paul Quinnett, a clinical psychologist and founder of the QPR Institute, an organization that educates people on how to prevent suicide:

“Any profession’s ethical standards require that you not treat a problem you don’t know, and yet every day thousands of untrained service providers see thousands of suicidal patients and perform uninformed interventions.”

READ MORE: Training Tompkins Clinicians in Suicide Prevention

USA Today noted that no national standards require mental health professionals to be trained in how to treat suicidal people, either during their education or in their career; and only nine states mandate training in suicide assessment, treatment, and management for health professionals.

A survey for “Suicide Prevention and the Clinical Workforce: Guidelines for Training,” a 2014 task force report by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, found that only 19 percent of responding institutions of higher education reported that their clinical degree programs required specific course work entirely about suicide prevention. Seventy-five of 80 state credentialing and licensing boards reported they did not require specific training in suicide prevention prior to initial licensure or certification, and all 80 said that there was no specific training requirement for continuing education in suicide prevention.

Clearly, much work needs to be done to prevent suicides, judging from death statistics. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34 and the 10th leading cause of death overall. While rates for other causes of death have remained steady or declined, the U.S. suicide rate increased 35.2% from 1999 to 2018.

In 2009, Quinnett kickstarted a discussion among colleagues about inadequate clinical training in suicide prevention, which inspired the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) to set up a task force to study the issue.

It issued a damning report in 2012, declaring that “the lack of training required of mental health professionals regarding suicide has been an egregious, enduring oversight by the mental health disciplines… The current state of training within the mental health field indicates that accrediting bodies, licensing organizations, and training programs have not taken the numerous recommendations and calls to action seriously.”

The report said, in part:

“We establish that mental health professionals regularly encounter patients who are suicidal, that patient suicide occurs with some frequency even among patients who are seeking treatment or are currently in treatment, and that, despite the serious nature of these patient encounters, the typical training of mental health professionals in the assessment and management of suicidal patients has been, and remains, woefully inadequate.”

The report said that only the field of psychiatry seemed to be “attempting to ensure that their trainees are, at a minimum, exposed to the skills required to properly conduct a suicide risk assessment and address suicidality in treatment.”

The report cited Quinnett’s definition of competence in the field:

“The capacity to conduct [a] one-to-one assessment/intervention interview between a suicidal respondent in a telephonic or face-to-face setting in which the distressed person is thoroughly interviewed regarding current suicidal desire/ideation, capability, intent, reasons for dying, reasons for living, and especially suicide attempt plans, past attempts and protective factors. The interview leads to a risk stratification decision, risk mitigation intervention and a collaborative risk management/safety plan, inclusive of documentation of the assessment and interventions made and/or recommended.”

The AAS report noted the U.S. surgeon general’s “call to action” in 1999 for competency in suicide risk assessment and management, as well as the 2001 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention’s goals for improved graduate school training in suicide care and more suicide care recertification and licensing programs for mental health professions.

The report said that while some states mandate continuing education in topics such as ethics, “there is no similar requirement to ensure that mental health professionals are using current information to assess and treat suicidal patients.”

The report noted the irony that in some places school employees are required to take gatekeeper training to make referrals to mental health professionals for potentially at-risk youth but there is no such requirement for the mental health professionals. “It is incomprehensible that, in many states, a teacher is now required to have more training on suicide warning signs and risk factors than the mental health professionals to whom he or she is directing potentially suicidal students,” the report said.

READ MORE: New Plan for Preventing Suicides in Tompkins County

The task force said there are inherent dangers in referring suicidal people to mental health professionals who are not adequately trained. If these individuals do not feel they receive effective treatment, the report said, they may drop out, become discouraged about the usefulness of treatment, and become at even higher risk for suicide.

The task force made five recommendations “to ensure that mental health professionals are properly trained and competent in evaluating and managing suicidal patients, the most common behavioral emergency situation encountered in clinical practice.”

  1. Accrediting organizations must include suicide-specific education and skill acquisition as part of their requirements for postbaccalaureate degree program accreditation.
  2. State licensing boards must require suicide-specific continuing education as a requirement for the renewal of every mental health professional’s license.
  3. State and federal legislation should be enacted requiring health care systems and facilities receiving state or federal funds to show evidence that mental health professionals in their systems have had explicit training in suicide risk detection, assessment, management, treatment, and prevention.
  4. Accreditation and certification bodies for hospital and emergency department settings must verify that staff members have the requisite training in assessment and management of suicidal patients.
  5. Individuals without appropriate graduate or professional training and supervised experience should not be entrusted with the assessment and management of suicidal patients.

The Sophie Fund asked Quinnett on March 8 whether any progress had been made in implementing the recommendations in the decade since the report was issued.

“I am unaware of significant changes in the training of clinicians at the graduate level where It needs to happen. There are a few people here and there teaching a seminar or maybe one class in one school of social work or psychology, but to my knowledge any training to really prepare students for practice is offered only though postgraduate seminars, workshops, and proprietary offerings. Practitioners continue to behave as if they don’t need this training. Thus, the consumer, in my view, remains at avoidable risk.”

Creating Kind, Safe, and Inclusive School Cultures

In my 30 years of practice as a school social worker, I’ve enjoyed working in four elementary schools and a middle school and high school. School communities are mirrors of societies with many similar dynamics. There is a tendency for societies to develop hierarchies. Those with more status exert their power over those with less status. And in some primary and secondary schools, this can mean the older students feel entitled to treat younger students in unkind ways, sometimes rising to bullying.

By creating kind, inclusive school communities, bullying and cyberbullying, as well as unkind behaviors, are less likely to occur. And when they do happen, the students from these healthy school cultures are more likely to know how to respond in a kind and helpful way by standing up to the hurtful behaviors either online or in the schoolyard.

These are students who share ownership and thereby take responsibility for maintaining a kind culture. I will outline a path whereby students look out for one another and take care of the younger and socially more vulnerable community members, for example students on the autism spectrum and students who identify as LGBTQ or are perceived to be LGBTQ.

Students who feel that they have a role to play as helpful upstanders at school can carry on this attitude on social media. Ultimately it requires that students need to trust adults. The current statistics do not reflect that trust. Nationwide, only 19 percent of students report bullying and only 11 percent report cyberbullying.

It starts with laying down a foundation of kindness and inclusiveness. To accomplish this, I’ve developed school programs which partner with students. One is for elementary schools named FAB and the other is WAM for secondary schools. 

The first norm I changed in my elementary schools was to address the practice of having boyfriends and girlfriends. I collaborated with the principals to establish an expectation that there are “no boyfriends or girlfriends.” This eliminated a dynamic whereby the focus of student’s attention was “who is going out with who,” “who do you like,” “who just broke up?” This drama ends up causing rumors, distress, and power dynamics that spill into classrooms and takes the attention off schoolwork. Once the older boys no longer felt they needed to be “attractive and cool” to impress the girls, and the girls no longer felt pressure to have a boyfriend to establish their popularity, it removed one of the components that can perpetuate a power structure. It goes without saying that this drama can easily play out in social media.

Friendship Assistance Brigade

FAB stands for Friendship Assistance Brigade. In creating this foundation of kindness, I conducted a survey asking students how they feel in the community and how much unkind behavior they notice.  I’d like to underline the fact that I do not use the word bullying, which is too limiting a term. I explained to students that kind and unkind behaviors are more reflective of what occurs.  I asked them to keep their focus on kindness and if they encouraged and modeled kindness, this would ultimately result in less bullying.

Once the survey was completed, I tabulated the data using colorful pie charts and presented the findings to the students. Rather than doing the interpreting myself, I asked them, “What do you see? What do you think of this?”  Frequently, survey results are not shared with students. Yet they are the ones that most urgently need to see it. They are the stakeholders. By sharing this with them, I demonstrated that I respected their opinion and invited them to become partners in moving forward.

When I was ready to start FAB, I pitched it to the 4th and 5th graders. I asked them, “Remember when you were the young ones and you looked up to the 4th and 5th graders and wanted to be like them? Now that you are the oldest students, you can choose to be a good role model and the younger students will want to be kind like you and they too will want to be in FAB when they get older.” And that is exactly what happened. Most of the younger siblings of FAB members also joined when they were old enough.

We met during lunch and recess once a week. During this time, they practiced the skits that had been developed over the years often in response to situations brought to our attention by students, or teachers.  They performed the skits, which are unscripted improvs, three times.

Take one is the unkind way. Take two involves an upstander stepping in, and take three is the kindest way.

Some of the more popular skits were: include others in play; boys and girls can play together (without teasing); share the ball; party invitations from home; be kind when someone makes a mistake; no bragging about grades, about winning, or about some expensive new item you received; and “stop means stop.” These skits were then presented at school assemblies or in individual classrooms. During our time together, we read and discussed books about bullying, upstanders, and kindness.  We spent time problem solving; we learned how to resolve conflicts and students developed compassion and empathy.

Here are some examples of how I knew FAB was successful. First, bullying events decreased. One example of awareness and compassion occurred when three students came to me and reported that they had read a book about autism from the school library, and concluded that one of their classmates fit the description and furthermore, he was being bullied right under the teacher’s nose and the teacher was unaware.

Another successful outcome happened when a socially isolated young person on the autism spectrum joined FAB. He initially did not join. I attributed that to the fact that he didn’t really understand the idea. So, I called his mother and asked for permission to be more persistent in my invitation to have him join. Well, he did join and became one of the most active and excited skit actors. He was in a skit for the entire school. Other members of FAB had shared with me that he had been bullied the year before. They told me this with him present. I asked them to look out for him. He stopped being bullied and he did develop a friendship group. The takeaway is that recruitment often involves reaching out personally to students. 

I found other opportunities for laying down the foundation of kindness. I offered lessons to all the 4th and 5th grade classrooms about safe, kind, and smart use on the internet. We covered everything including pop ups, spam, social media, netiquette, chain mail, addiction, and cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying was the most comprehensive unit and included covering sexting with the 5th graders. I would describe the forms of cyberbullying and explain ways to be an upstander. I proposed that one of the avenues they could take was to befriend the target and not to be sucked into the back-and-forth flame war. Throughout, I pointed out the importance of letting their adults know. And we practiced how to respond kindly online after brainstorming some ideas.

Also, I always asked them to educate me about their online experiences.  They were eager to share what was happening in their cyber worlds and via this questioning and invitation to share, they disclosed some scary situations that they had encountered. My intention was that by asking questions, and providing space for them to share their experiences, I was building the trust and the open communication that are necessary components when creating safe and kind communities.

Another vital component to creating inclusive and safe schools is to be present during recess.  It entails walking around and noticing what is happening socially. Who is all alone? Are girls permitted to join sport activities and are all players treated respectfully. How are teams picked?

Pay Attention

This brings me to underlying principles that point to best practice for all school staff in preventing bullying. First, pay attention. Bad stuff happens right under the noses of adults. Regardless of why teachers don’t intervene, this is interpreted by students as “they don’t care.” There are, of course, many school staff, including teacher aides, who do pay close attention and have been some of the most effective responders to unkind behavior.

If you see a group rough housing and everyone is laughing, don’t assume that everyone is having a good time. Be aware of the pecking order. Talk privately with the student on the bottom. Ask them if they are enjoying it. They may say “yes.” But if you have a gut feeling that it is one sided, you can ask all of them politely to stop the rough housing.

An example of paying attention happened years ago when I came across a student sitting by himself eating his lunch. Another student approached him asking him for his sandwich, which he immediately handed over. I asked him privately later if he meant to share his food. He said he did not. I asked him if he’d like me to talk to the other student or if he wanted to himself. He asked me to. When I approached the other student, he was quite taken aback. He’d assumed that the other student was okay with it and promised not to ask him for food again. The takeaway is pay attention, ask questions, interview the person of concern privately, never with the perpetrator.

Ask Questions. I have found that youth love to talk about social issues online and in school. They just may not want to disclose what is happening to themselves. To get around this, I ask what they are seeing in terms of bullying or unkind behavior in others. Once the pressure is off them, I have found that students are very forthcoming.

Follow through. On many occasions, students have reported to me that in their schools there was an initial big response to bullying but that once the situation had blown over, there was no follow through and the bullying reemerged. This turns out to be one of the chief reasons that students don’t share what is happening. They think that either the adults will do nothing helpful, or they will make it worse. They do not trust that the adults will intervene in a successful way.

Be the One. Make sure that every student has at least one adult in the school that they feel close to.  Someone must “be the one” to ensure that every student feels that they belong to a caring community.

Welcoming Allies and Mentors

Which brings me to WAM, a program for  middle and high school students. WAM stands for Welcoming Allies and Mentors. It came about many years ago when a teacher approached me and asked if I could do something about the high schoolers who were in effect hazing the new middle schoolers. My school spanned 6-12th grade. I began with a survey and had a team of students analyze the results and pursue a program that would address their concerns. WAM grew out of this.

WAM totally switched it up, creating a new school norm from having older students complain about and harass or ignore younger students to being their allies, friends, and advocates. Older students are matched with incoming 6th graders and other new students. These mentors are responsible for orienting new students over one day of information sharing and ice-breaking games.

They are then paired with their student/s for the rest of the year and often continue this relationship until they graduate. They become the go-to person when their mentee has questions or concerns. The WAM team met once a week to discuss the general tone of the community and any problems that they had seen. One such issue was that the older students were budging in the lunch line.

We brought in an expert to discuss suicide, signs, responses, and the necessity of sharing concerns with adults. We learned about hidden and not so hidden disabilities. We recruited students with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Muscular Dystrophy, Attention Deficit Disorder,  Tourette Syndrome, and autism to speak at an assembly to share some of the characteristics of their disability and how it produced challenges, and most importantly, how the community could be supportive. This trust and sharing of information are indicative of a community that is safe, kind, and inclusive. WAM also organized fun bonding events for their mentees.

Just as with FAB, there were no barriers to joining WAM. No grade requirements, no behavior requirements, no essays, or teacher recommendations. And as with FAB, I actively recruited students that would offer diversity. I had one student sign up who was known to the community as being unkind. 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.

Another student that I actively recruited was a loner. He reluctantly joined and became one of the most popular WAM mentors. His students absolutely adored him, and he came out of his shell and relished in the discovery that he had something to offer others. One member of WAM became a very vocal and articulate leader for students on the autism spectrum.

Another strategy I have used to open communication and establish kind, inclusive school norms was to teach an internet class as well as a section about how to be a helpful upstander for incoming 6th graders. I also conducted a survey of the 6th graders to ascertain if they felt safe and welcome and to provide them with the opportunity to express concerns.

Trusting Adults

How does all this apply to cyberbullying? Once the community has a norm of looking after each other with kindness and compassion, it does migrate to online behavior. What I noticed was that when something did go awry, students were more likely to find adults to share concerns with. They had acquired the skills and the compassion to be helpful upstanders, and they had trust in the adults to be helpful.

To have the best outcome in maintaining safe, inclusive, and kind school cultures, students need to feel trust in their adults. Adults need to partner with students and demonstrate that they care and are truly interested in what they have to say. Students need to take the helm in establishing and maintaining norms of kindness and inclusiveness.

—By Celia Clement

Celia Clement was a social worker for more than 30 years in the Ithaca City School District. She is the author of Three Sisters: A True Holocaust Story of Love, Luck, and Survival.

This article is adapted from a presentation delivered in a panel discussion on “Strengths Based Intervention & Prevention Approaches” at the 2022 United in Kindness symposium on cyberbullying sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force. CLICK HERE TO WATCH A VIDEO OF THE EVENT

Why School Climate is a “Big Deal”

How can educators prevent bullying and cyberbullying? Creating or maintaining a healthy school climate is one of keys, according to Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

A slide from Sameer Hinduja’s “School Climate 2.0” presentation

School climate is a “big deal,” says Hinduja, the keynote speaker at the 2022 United in Kindness Symposium, “What to Do About Cyberbullying,” on January 27. He defined school climate as a constellation of elements, such as connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school spirit, school safety, and morale—not just of students but also educators.

In a presentation aimed at youth-serving adults titled “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time,” Hinduja pointed to research done by his center indicating that the best school cultures combined a strong disciplinary structure with emotional support and warmth.

When schools were perceived by students as having a healthier and safer school climate, he said, they experienced fewer problem behaviors, such as bullying and cyberbullying. “When you improve school climate, you also have higher academic achievement, lower truancy, lower absenteeism, and higher morale,” he added.

Hinduja shared numerous suggestions for building a healthy school climate. He noted that some of them were designed for schools experiencing Covid-19 virtual learning periods, but that they could be beneficial in normal times as well.

He pointed to a school in Chester, NJ that encouraged students to share social media posts with a school hashtag expressing their school spirit, such as a photo wearing school colors, or a video giving words of encouragement to a fellow student or teacher.

Hinduja said that the student council at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, AZ created a variation of the hashtag challenge during “Valley’s Gone Virtual Week.” Each day, classmates were invited to share a photo of their favorite Netflix show, or an Instagram image of themselves dressed in rainbow colors, or a Snapchat picture wearing as much yellow as possible.

At Bedford High School in Bedford, OH, Hinduja said, school administrators use Instagram as a platform for communicating school news as well as messages discouraging unkind behaviors such as bullying. Such posts, he explained, “can be used to plant seeds in the minds of our youth to make the appropriate decisions, the wise decisions, the best decisions, the mature decisions.”

Hinduja said that some schools, such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the scene of a mass school shooting in 2018, have created Instagram accounts modeled after Humans of New York to share stories of resilience.

WATCH: “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Unsafe Social Media Use One Classroom at a Time”

Hinduja said another way to encourage youth involves projects allowing “purposeful pairing” of older and younger students, which gives the older one the chance to learn leadership skills and gives the younger one somebody to look up to and emulate.

Hinduja supports kindness campaigns, anti-bullying clubs, and the use of play acting skits to encourage positive behaviors among students. He cited a phenomenon of using flash mob dances in school to bring powerful messages to fellow students.

“In the cafeteria, music starts blaring through the speakers, and a critical mass of students rises to their feet and start dancing in synchronized fashion,” he explained. “Everyone is like, ‘What in the world is happening?’ But right then and there they have a platform to speak of what is near and dear to their hearts, whether it’s victimization, or how we’re treating minority populations, or misogynist comments heard in the locker room.”

Hinduja said that schools can foster and facilitate upstander behavior among students through presentations like the Starbucks “Upstanders” original series on YouTube; the videos celebrate ordinary young people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities, he said.

“Many students are surveying the landscape looking to be inspired,” Hinduja said. “So let’s inspire them with stories of youth just like them who are doing epic and legendary things to make a difference.”

He cited many examples of projects initiated by young people that can serve to inspire, such as the Canadian teenager who came up with #PositivePostItDay by writing compliments on Post-It notes and putting them on lockers throughout her school.

Another is the nine-year-old in Arizona, who founded Hoops of Hope, a basketball free-throw marathon that has raised $2.5 million to support orphaned children in Africa who lost parents to AIDS. And another Hinduja cited is a 12-year-old in Wisconsin who started Angels at Bat, which collects gently used baseball equipment from around the country and sends it to needy youth teams in Africa.

Finally, Hinduja recommended that administrators and teachers find ways to connect with students on a meaningful level, such as by creating student advisory boards, and being not only a “trusted” adult but an “askable” adult—a person that young people really know they can turn to.

“They have so much to say, they have so much to tell you, but if you never really demonstrate to them that we care what you have to say, we want to validate your voice, then they’re just going to keep their mouth shut,” said Hinduja.

The 2022 United in Kindness Symposium was sponsored by the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force and made possible in part through grants from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Sophie Fund.