For students to do well in school, there are five criteria that need to be met, according to Jo Ann Freiberg, who is a consultant at the Connecticut State Department of Education:
1.have a connection with at least one adult (teacher, counselor, etc.)
2.feel happy to be at school
3.feel like they are a part of the school
4.feel as though adults at the school treat them fairly
5.feel safe (physically, emotionally, etc.)
Dealing with bullying behaviors in the schools, then, is necessary if we want students to succeed.
This was the focus of tonight’s community forum — “Making a Difference: The Bullied Respond” – at the Hartford Public Library. Before the panel discussion, the audience viewed a series of It Gets Better and Make it Better videos. The discussion began with a look at what LGBT youth are enduring, but it was quickly acknowledged that the bullying that occurs is because of any real/perceived difference. An adult audience member shared his story about how he now has a metal plate and screws in his mouth because he was assaulted in high school; he had been picked on because of his name and for wanting to start a religious club at his school.
Panelist Danielle Procaccini — a drama teacher and gay-straight alliance advisor at Hartford Public High School Law and Government Academy — said she found it “very frustrating [...] that we’re still even having this conversation,” noting that the issues that exist today are the same ones that existed when she was in high school as a student. What she hears from teachers is that there is so much teasing and name calling that this has become the students’ “natural language.” While there is some physical bullying, things like cyber bullying are more prevalent. For those out of the loop on this, imagine rumors passed on a note, except that many peers are receiving that message all at the same time. Some improvements are happening, though. There is now a GSA at this school, which before this year, did not have one. This has allowed some conversations to occur that did not previously. She also noted that over fifty students participated in the Day of Silence this year.
The message of “it gets better” might be hard for some to understand when their day-to-day lives are so awful. David Perry, one of the panelists and a graduate of Hartford Public High School, described his own experience succinctly:
I hated high school. I hated being threatened.
Perry’s experience is one that others can relate to. When he complained to teachers about how he was being mistreated by other students, the teachers claimed that they saw nothing. Lani Black, another panelist who discussed his experience with being bullied throughout high school, said that he actually attended four different schools in four years and was bullied at all of them, though the response from adults varied in each school.
The discussion became more interactive when the panelists and audience were asked what works to deal with bullying behaviors. Panelist LB Muñoz, who works with the Anti-Defamation League, said that kids should be encouraged to “be allies” and that youth “need to stand up for one another.” Freiberg followed this by stating that we “don’t ask students to self-advocate” if “adults aren’t standing behind them.” She said that there must be systemic change and that while “Connecticut schools are getting safer” every single adult in the school system “needs to be on the same page.” Freiberg also argued that we look at semantics and stop using the term “bullying”; instead, it should be said that someone is being “mean” or “unkind.” Her reasons for this were not entirely clear, but she put it plainly that people should know, “if it’s mean, intervene.”
One of the panelists relayed his own story about a time that an intervention with bullies was successful. After being taunted repeatedly by homophobes during lunch, Lani Black said that the bullying became intolerable when one of those students launched a condom filled with juice at a table of students from the school’s GSA. Black contacted the school security about the incident and was assured that it would be taken care of, but as those of us who have heard such promises made before know, little usually happens. Black conveyed his surprise when the following day at lunch several police officers came into the cafeteria and removed all of the students who had been harassing the GSA students. They had to eat their lunch elsewhere for the rest of the year.
As someone said, behaviors should never reach the point that the police are called in.
The question of “what is effective” was turned over to the audience, and time ran out before people ran out of ideas. Audience input included the following:
•use humor to diffuse situation
•mentor at-risk youth
•start a club/community
•have a zero tolerance policy
•model appropriate behavior
•parents need to listen about what is going on at their child’s school, and not just to situations involving their own kids; parents should show concern for others’ children, as some parents are not as involved in their kids’ lives
•intervene when offensive language is used (ex: “that’s so gay,” “no homo”)
•return to one’s alma mater to see what the climate is like now
•note the difference between “tolerance” vs. “respect“
•ask students what they need
•“when you see gay teens in public, just smile at them”
To make one of these suggestions less abstract, discussion moderator, Robin McHaelen, asked for ways people can intervene. Panelists and audience members said that people could ask questions, ask the person using offensive language to repeat what was just said, use this as a way to start a conversation, or say something (ex: “you know better than that”).
The need to move beyond acknowledging this issue and actually take action is great. As Muñoz said, “humans are very, very fragile.”
Tonight’s discussion focused on the bullying of youth, but seeds have been planted for a possible future forum on dealing with bullying in college.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.