Ending bullying a shared responsibility

Schools have their role, but so does larger community

May 11, 2010|By Andrés A. Alonso

What should schools do to prevent and respond to bullying? What is the responsibility of the larger community around bullying, which often affects our most vulnerable children? I have been turning these questions over in my head for a long time, and in the last two weeks in particular, as an incident in a Baltimore City public school pointed up not only how complex the answers to these questions are but the shortcomings in how we, as a community, respond to this difficult issue.

We have all witnessed or experienced bullying behavior. For me, bullying is intolerable and unacceptable. And the issue is personal. For 12 years, I taught English language learners and students with disabilities in Newark, N.J. During the first seven of those years, I taught in a school for severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. These kids were the most vulnerable and most aggrieved; many had been bullied, or acted as bullies. And my work was to establish healthy norms that went against everything they had learned about establishing pecking orders among themselves.

There were no silver bullets. But I saw up close how insidious bullying can be, and how devastating. An action that bounces off one child can deeply penetrate the mind of another. I saw how the slightest bully-like behavior, left unchecked, can lead to something much larger and more troubling.

The reflexive response to school-based bullying is often to exclude the bully. That doesn't work. Last year, the Baltimore City Health Department released a study that showed a strong correlation between children who had been suspended multiple times and those who committed, and were victims of, homicide. Children who bully are themselves almost always victims of bullying — and even violence —and they replicate with other kids what they see adults do. So to remove them from school is, in essence, to condemn them to a cycle of violence. It is a narrow and unconscionable solution.

Baltimore City Public Schools' primary approach to bullying is to work with students to create school communities where every child feels safe, and we train school-based staff to lead students in this work. Student conduct was a key part of all principals' training for the 2009-10 school year last summer, and all teachers received extensive guidance on classroom and behavior management. As part of this, teachers were also trained on city schools' Code of Conduct and coached to clearly convey to students expectations for behavior in the classroom, with an emphasis on bullying prevention.

In addition, BCPS has partnered with the health department in recent years to place mental health clinicians in the middle grades, directly or indirectly benefiting more than 30,000 students. And more than 60 of our schools currently have formal programs in place to strengthen their school climates. These programs include establishing a clear and shared vision; conflict resolution training and resources for teachers, staff and students; supports for students facing serious challenges at home and at school; clear rules and expectations; and clear and meaningful roles for parents and community members in keeping schools safe. Every school improvement plan, crafted with contributions from many people in a school, has to make explicit a school's approach to any issues of conduct, including bullying.

As a result of these and other efforts, the number of suspensions in city schools is down 33 percent since 2007 and is expected to decline further this year. This trend reflects our clear approach to discipline: Incidents of violence need to lead to suspension; incidents that are not violent need a range of responses that should keep the children in school.

Yet bullying behavior still occurs in our school communities every day, and we must stop it. The recent spotlight on the issue is a welcome and crucial opportunity — an imperative, really — for us to get better at doing just that. It gives us a chance to take stock of what we are doing now and to develop more effective and far-reaching solutions. If even one child is feeling targeted, we are falling short of our obligation to our kids.

At the same time, we know the answers don't lie in city schools alone. Because bullying in school often reflects behaviors learned outside of school, we need our families' and communities' help. And there are many ways to be involved. BCPS' Family Institute offers regular anti-bullying trainings for parents, with several sessions slated for May and June. We also have a volunteer matching system and more than 20 schools that are seeking volunteers to help out during recess, lunch and in between classes — times when school staff is the most stretched and bullying behavior is most likely to occur.

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