Student Advisory Boards Can Inform Bullying Policies and Prevention
Whenever I visit schools to give a cyberbullying assembly or presentation to parents in the community, I am also typically asked to sit down and chat with the administrators about the policies and programs they have in place. Here, they let me know what they have been doing to identify, address, and prevent teen technology misuse, and then detail some of the struggles that they have faced – like how to talk about sexting without sounding irrelevant, how to develop penalties for rule-breaking that can be consistently enforced and supported by all, and how to strategically encourage kindness and peer respect in a compelling way. Apart from sharing with them evolving best practices, I also encourage them to invite students to the table when determining what can and should be done.
Students should always feel that they have a voice at school. This means that their input on school activities, curriculum, teaching styles, field trips, behavioral issues on campus, and other matters is valued and taken into consideration. I strongly believe that the relevant decision makers at each school should regularly meet with student leaders or even consider convening a “Student Advisory Board” comprised of teens who want to get involved in the governance of their school. In this setting, administrators should solicit and take student perspectives into account when figuring out strategies and solutions, and to continually welcome their thoughts and input on these matters.
Students know — better than anyone else — what devices, programs, or sites are being embraced and exploited by their peer group. They can clue you in to the latest popular social media apps that have gained a lot of traction on campus, the newest interactive software being exploited, and the hottest technology tools (along with all of their capabilities). Students can then inform adults about some of the problems they have seen online among their friends – such as cyberbullying, sexting, anonymous threats, and major digital reputation issues. It is crucial to create a non-judgmental and safe environment in which you regularly invite both older and younger student leaders to candidly provide feedback on the tech-related misbehaviors they see and hear about (or even participate in).
Get their “insider” perspective. You will then be better able to determine the comprehensiveness of your policy, its deterrent value among students (if any), how consistently it is enforced, and whether it is respected. Since the majority of students use technology safely and responsibly – and are often afforded certain device privileges on campus – they wouldn’t want that access taken away from them. Therefore, it is in their best interest to help adults in identifying problem areas and getting them resolved so that the misbehavior of one or two students doesn’t ruin it for everyone else.
As an added benefit, students who are involved in reviewing the bullying policies cannot say that they “didn’t know” that what they were doing was wrong, and using students to help define the behaviors (and even possible penalties for breaking the rules) will ensure that the policies are up to date and applicable to contemporary concerns. Plus, if students are a part of policy development, they have a stake in the policies’ successful implementation. When new or revised policies are developed, use students to help get the word out. For example, the Student Advisory Board could go into individual classes for a few minutes to talk about the purpose of new policies, share it over the morning or afternoon announcements, or write about it for the school paper, website, or yearbook. The more you educate students about potential issues and concerns, the more willing they are to take ownership of reasonable policies to prevent the misuse of technology.
It is also a good idea to give youth an opportunity to offer constructive criticism on the wording of your formal rules, the informal and formal penalties tied to various transgressions, and the curricula and related programming you have in place (or are considering). Allow them to articulate their thoughts and suggestions about what they believe will work to change prevailing mentalities across campus, and meaningfully promote a school climate that is all about appropriate and responsible behaviors (at school and online). Truly, they will let you know what they think is “lame” and what they think will actually succeed.
Listen to students. The last thing you want to do is to waste time, effort, and resources on a creative initiative the adults thought was a fantastic idea, but ends up as a complete and utter FAIL. To be honest, that will do more bad than good by reaffirming student suspicion that the school is oblivious and completely out of the loop. Since teens are fully immersed in all things technological and social, it is crucial to enlist their help in determining how best the school can equip the student body with the skills and knowledge to be great digital citizens, how best to pitch responsible online behavior as “cool” and “what we do around here,” and how best to get everyone on board.
ITO Club – Student Leaders Transforming School Climate to Prevent Bullying
For a few years now, I have admired the leadership and initiative of Ms. Geraldine Johnson, Bullying Prevention Coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley School District. She stands out in my mind as one of the most caring youth workers I have ever known, and it is so inspiring to see the love she has for her students and the love her students have for her. Together, they have proactively sought to combat bullying and create an environment in which kindness, peer respect, and acceptance reign supreme. Central to this effort is their ITO Club, which we featured in our new cyberbullying book for teens entitled “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.” ITO stands for “It Takes One” – and that message is the primary thread in the fabric of their programming to really make a difference and transform their school community for good. Here is her story:
In my role as a behavior specialist and special educator for over 30 years, I have done many social skill lessons and bullying prevention lessons that involve role-play with students of all ages. During these discussions and role-plays I found that most students do not agree with the mistreatment of their peers, but do not always know what to do about it. I discovered that – just like when teaching academics – the more we teach students how and what to do, the more likely they are to do it! I decided that in order to get students to support each and to be active bystanders, they need to be taught explicitly what to do.
Most students are able to express how uncomfortable the unkind behaviors make them feel, but do not know how to respond. That is what motivated me to start the ITO (It Takes One) Club – to teach the students that behavior –good and bad – is contagious, and if one person stands up for someone who is being treated unkindly, others will follow. I wanted it to be “popular” and “cool” to be kind. I wanted to have a place for students to learn how to support each other in fun, supportive, and creative ways. ITO has become much more than that…. It has become not only a club, but a place for students to learn to support each other, a major change agent. Students are spreading the message, “It takes one. Be one.” And “It takes one. I am one.” The emphasis of the club has become not only how to support someone who is being treated in an unkind way, but also how to be pro-active and prevent incidents from happening. Students are being reinforced for “being the change.” Our goal is to have all students at CV know that if something unkind is done to them, there will be staff and students there to support them.
Implementing ITO in our schools requires a lot of planning, cooperation, and passion from students and adults. Without the support and cooperation from school and district administration, the ITO program would not be able to thrive. Fortunately, our principals, Mr. Rob Martin (co-advisor) and Ms. Judy Baumgardner are passionate about the program and willing to devote time and energy into making it work. Additionally, Mr. Martin and Ms. Baumgardner model for parents, students, and staff what “treating others with respect” looks like on a daily basis. Being an ITO advisor requires a major time commitment in order to be available to students, to assess the effects of the program, to do research, and to attend club activities and meetings. Besides having a passion for the mission, advisors must also enjoy working with adolescents, knowing when to step back and let students take the lead. Advisors must also be able to encourage students not to be defeated by the naysayers and to keep things positive while prioritizing and assessing our efforts.
Students who lead the club must also model the respectful behaviors we are trying to spread. Our student leaders go through process which includes filling out an application, writing an essay, teacher evaluation, and formal interviews with current ITO leaders and advisors. We have learned that involving students in every level of the process is an important component to making ITO successful. The student leaders become our “eyes and ears” of the school, not about specific behaviors or incidents, but about what students are thinking and what will work to get the message across to them. We have found that both students and staff are much more receptive to information if it comes from students themselves. Our student leaders give our adult bullying prevention team feedback on class meetings and activities in order to make information relevant and student-friendly.
Because our student leaders have such an important voice in planning and intervention, it is also very important that our leaders are educated on the most up-to-date research-based information on bullying prevention and school climate. To accomplish this, we do formal training with our student leaders, using such resources as Dr. Sameer Hinduja’s work and resources, combined with the “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.” As a certified Olweus trainer, I bring the most up-to- date information to the leaders so they can be confident in their efforts to spread the word in their presentations, club activities, and in social media. Student leaders must also learn to work as a team and compromise on projects. Our eventual goal is to add the ITO program to the already existing bullying prevention programs in all levels, from elementary to secondary, so every student can benefit from ITO.
Our student leaders meet with us bi- weekly to plan club meetings. The club meetings, also bi-weekly, include activities such as guest speakers, parties, team building activities, socials, and community events. Our leaders use social media to get the word out about meetings. All students are invited to the club activities. We put great effort into getting students from different groups, clubs, and interests to join us. An anonymous referral system that is available to all students, staff and parents is also used to find students who need extra support and possibly intervention. This has helped us to identify teens who have been marginalized for some reason or another, but are incredibly amazing people and who need to get plugged in. Finally, students who are inspired to step up and make a positive change here at our school are recognized and commended by the staff and administration.
In my thirty-plus years as an educator, being the creator and advisor for the ITO program has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Although there have been challenges, I am reminded on a daily basis how these students are making a positive change and affecting the lives of so many in our school and community.
Here are some additional perspectives from students I met while working with Geraldine:
ITO (It Takes One) is an outlet for some, and a safe place for others. ITO for me was both but most importantly it was a club that I could express my passion for preventing something so awful in our school. It has given me more opportunities than ever imagined and a new appreciation for teamwork and compromise. ITO has taught me to still believe in the good hearts of high school students but always be aware that everyone isn’t as kind- hearted, but you always have a friend in this club. Personally, this club has taught me invaluable life lessons and I have met life changing people along the way. My personal mission statement is that it is by far “more cool” to be the nice kid and be the kid to stand up for someone rather than turning a shoulder or even engaging in the action. Being nice will be the trait to take you places in this world.
~ Dana Basehore
As a senior leader for ITO (It Takes One) Club, I advise our media relations within the school and throughout social media networks. My goal is to spread our mission as far as the eye can see, and beyond! We work to prevent harassment within our community, and this serves to bring people together. I have seen firsthand how great of an impact our efforts have been through the lives of our high school students, and we have so much more to achieve with our club members this year! My hope is to reach as many students as possible with our message and teach students and community members how to bring people together for a common cause. Learning to be an active bystander has really helped me in difficult situations, and I am honored to be a senior leader for one of the most important clubs that is not only making a change in our school, but also in our society.
~ Aeliana Lomax
Preventing Bullying through Kindness
I’ve been working with Adam Sherman of the To Be Kind movement over the last few years, as he is an award-winning educator here in my home state of Florida (and also worked in the county where I went to school while growing up!). He is passionate about creating positive climates within schools to reduce violence, harassment, and hate, and his enthusiasm is contagious and so refreshing to see. While teaching Leadership classes at school, he spearheaded a curriculum to encourage a peer environment that helps (and not hurts) others, and it has gained significant traction around Florida.
I’ve asked him and a few of his students to share some of their thoughts below. My hope is that it inspires teachers and counselors to identify a cadre on campus that can take this idea and run with it! With the new academic year upon us, I think it is essential to enlist teens to set the right tone early on regarding bullying and cyberbullying. With effort and follow-through, it has the potential to truly transform the school community.
The educator (Adam Sherman):
Kindness is difficult for students. The hard part with kindness is that our collective society has made it easier to be mean. It is easier, and often more comfortable, to laugh at others, to judge them, to talk negatively behind their back, etc. For lack of a better description, hurting others is sometimes a socially acceptable norm. So when students, or anyone for that matter, go out of their way to do/say something with kindness, they are actually looked at in a negative light. It often means they are going against their peers and that opens them up to be hurt negatively. That means students are quick to give up. As an educator, and quite simply as an adult, I have to help show them that they must continue to persevere despite the nay-sayers.
It can be difficult to imagine teaching young people to be kind. After all, when one thinks of bullying, they automatically think of it as a “rite-of-passage” and that all students do it. But for me, it is easy to help them learn a different way through life because I try to look to my own actions first. Just as anyone else, I make mistakes and say things I don’t mean, but I have to set the example for the students. I have to live my life kindly so that they can learn the behavior. We aren’t born to be mean, we learn to be that way.
When it comes to how we divy up the responsibilities of keeping this program moving, the students are tasked with influencing their peers. They take care of the school operations as well as helping me to design the materials we will use. I handle basically everything else. I monitor paperwork, social media (Facebook and Twitter), community involvement, inquiries, expansion, etc. I want the students to focus on their peers.
That is one of the reasons the program has become so successful. While we have created a model, it can be uniquely individualized for each school that takes it on. We have standards that we like to keep up and basic principles for schools to follow, but anyone who is familiar with education knows that every school is different. What one school needs may not be needed elsewhere. So the hope is that a strong group of students, with a strong adult role model, can create a culture of kindness and make school a place that students want to be. And the students certainly do that.
Since our program has begun three years ago, much has changed in physicality. My original students have moved on (except for one who remains on the Board of Directors), I have changed school districts (where of course I have already laid the groundwork to continue TBK), and though we have grown beyond what we ever thought we would, much remains the same. The message of TBK remains so simple, and also drives its growing popularity. Our pledge, “Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me,” is something that people of all ages can easily remember. We can’t change the behaviors of others, but we can certainly control the behaviors of ourselves. If we practice kindness, we will be surrounded by kindness. And when we are faced with negativity, we can either let it get to us, or we can respond to it by being kind. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn that negative into a positive.
The students (Quinn Solomon, Joshua Sanchez, Danielle Soltren of Lake Brantley High School):
Over the past few years, social media has boomed. But as its popularity grows, so does the ability to mistreat others through the Internet. Often, there’s a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to bullying. Some people assume that it’s a problem that will always exist. We seek to destroy that mentality by showing the power of kindness, both in person and online. We’re optimistic that we can eliminate bullying step-by-step. After a terrifying experience when an online hit list threatened our students and faculty, our Leadership class knew they wanted to make a change.
After a long class discussion, someone suggested using social media as a way to help solve the bullying problem rather than make it worse. We decided to use the already trending idea of “tbh” (to be honest), where users on Facebook can like someone’s status and then receive an honest statement from him or her. Using the same format, we changed the idea to “to be kind.” Users still take part by liking a post on someone’s page. Then the original poster is supposed to give a compliment or write words of kindness on the wall of whoever liked the status. To Be Kind, or TBK, is a simple idea: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Every one of us possesses the ability to be kind. This simplicity is the answer to preventing bullying.
The impact on our school was instantaneous. TBK turned into a buzz overnight. The very next day after we launched our idea, students were talking and trying to figure out what TBK was and where it came from. Using follow-up actions such as putting positive messages in lockers, we quickly turned it into a movement that lots of people wanted to be part of.
Like many new things, our idea hasn’t always been met with positivity. Many of the kind posts that students make on social media are rejected. Many people aren’t used to kindness anymore. We’re used to ridicule rather than compliments. So sometimes people post negativity in response. When that happens, we just thank them for expressing their feelings, or we ignore the comment. The purpose of TBK isn’t to instigate fighting or rumors, or to provide an outlet for people to criticize others. Its purpose is to show that social media and other everyday interactions can be improved with a few thoughtful words. Anyone, of any age, can spread a few extra smiles in a day. And TBK isn’t focused solely on students. We encourage parents and community members to get involved and to support our project at work and at home. We’ve also included the school faculty and staff by sharing words of kindness with them.
We take huge pride in TBK. It has grown into a symbol of anti-bullying not only at our school, but in many schools around our district, country, and beyond. For example, our school participates in a German exchange program. We’ve helped our partner school establish a TBK program, as well. The world wants kindness. People want to be treated as if they matter. That’s the ultimate purpose of the program. We know that kindness will continue to spread and bullying will continue to diminish. Remember: Bullying ends where kindness begins, and it begins with you.
Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Anti-Bullying Youth Rally at Schools
Pep rallies for our middle and high school athletic teams have been going on for decades, and are always great ways to get fired up about the sports season, or the next big game. They serve multiple purposes, all of which are quite important. For one, it really heightens school spirit – and if I am a student I want to be excited about my school, and believe in its chance and ability for success and victory. Second, it’s related to our identity, and our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, if you are a student, you belong to a group – whether you are the Rams, or the Fighting Owls, or the Blugolds, or the Vikings. You’re not alone; you are supporting something and working towards something together, with your peers – people you know and hopefully care about. Third, pep rallies break up the monotony of the school routine, and provide a fun, energetic, and inspiring outlet for everyone. This matters – students need this, on a regular basis.
In recent years, some schools are starting to hold pep rallies to promote academic success (instead of only athletic success), and figure out a creative way to recognize those on the Dean’s List, or Honor Roll, or otherwise doing awesome things towards their academic goals or for the betterment of the community. Well, we are also starting to see a trend where some schools – as spearheaded by motivated and passionate teens – decide to put on an anti-bullying pep rally. Now, this is a bit tricky because everyone will be like, “Why are we being called into the gymnasium (or auditorium)?” “What is going on here?” “Man I hope this doesn’t suck!” And so it will be up to interested students and faculty/staff to come up with a really enjoyable, meaningful experience where you:
1) Talk about how bullying, drama, and other conflicts are specifically affecting your school and the students in it (be real, be honest, and speak from the heart!).
2) Share about how in order for everyone to have a great school year, it has got to stop.
3) Tie it into the fact that everyone is a Greyhound, or Dolphin, or Chippewa (etc.), and how being a part of this group means that we all should act in a certain way (and not be jerks towards others). There is a responsibility to do the right thing, and that most ARE doing the right thing, and we just need everyone else to get on board.
4) Invite a speaker who can do a great job getting everyone to truly understand the pain that bullying/cyberbullying causes, and how we have got to put a stop to it at our school.
5) Invite a DJ who can create a party atmosphere and once again get everyone pumped up about belonging to the school, being a Yankee or Titan or Warrior, and doing the right thing (even when it’s hard).
The objective isn’t to preach, or lecture, or drone on and on with a furrowed brow about how kids shouldn’t bully each other. They know that. The objective is to create a formal event at your school where everyone can get together and rally around a cause and honestly, have a fun and memorable time (with some thought-provoking built in). This requires a delicate balance to the contents, and a strategic approach to the event’s structure, but it is very doable.
Have you done this, or anything like this? Has it been successful? Did it fall short? What did you learn from the experience, and what do you think about the idea and its value in your specific school environment? We really look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
Student Plays to Combat Bullying
We are always interested in sharing cool ideas that schools are doing to promote positive climates and reduce peer conflict and bullying. One idea that has worked very well in some communities is the creation and performance of a school play with social norming messages interwoven in the fabric of its storyline. It can include one or several different skits to deliver the actual social norms message of positive online behavior to students in a creative, relatable, and hard-hitting manner. This production can travel to classrooms within the school, be presented to the entire student body or community, or be shown as part of after-school and/or extracurricular youth programming.
A skit might include one character who is sexting a boy she has a crush on while another character, who is her friend, explains that the behavior is not “cool.” The mere mention that other students do not sext may be sufficient motivation to refrain from the behavior. Additionally, the play can be made interactive as the actors can solicit suggestions from the audience and then improvise on these to convey the appropriate social norming message. The skits should be fun and interesting to watch, but they should also be direct and to the point and focus mostly on positive uses of technology among the student body. It is up to the creative talent of the drama department to determine how best to present it with props, acting, and a script. If done well, a theatrical production involving fellow students has the potential to have a positive and lasting impact on the entire student body.
Our colleague Nathan Jeffrey, director of education and outreach for Taproot Theatre Company in Seattle, Washington, recently shared his passion about the value of these anti-bullying plays with us. We hope that his words foster some related ideas as to what you can do. Also know that you can purchase scripts for these plays from his Theatre to use at your school if you feel that is best for your situation.
Using Stage Productions to Enhance School Climate
Taproot Theatre has been touring social-issue plays to schools in the Northwest for over 25 years, and the Taproot Road Company serves over 90,000 students in the Northwest each year. We began with drug and alcohol prevention plays in the 1980s, and our hope is to be relevant to whatever issues students are facing. One reason we feel cyberbullying has become such an important topic is that students are now unable to escape bullying when they go home from school. Students can be bullied via text messaging and social media sites 24 hours of every day. Telling students not to visit certain sites isn’t working—wouldn’t you want to know what’s being said about you? As we’ve interviewed school administrators, they’ve expressed the recurring theme that a growing number of school violence incidents begin online and culminate when the students see each other on campus.
In an effort to change the culture of schools, Taproot Theatre premiered the show “New Girl” in 2008. It was a five-character drama in which Rachel, a new student at Clements High School, is pressured into participating in the cyberbullying of one of her classmates. The show dealt with harassment via text messaging, Facebook, and MySpace.
New Girl became one of the most popular secondary school shows in Taproot’s history with over 210 performances from 2008 to 2011. As national tragedies involving cyberbullying took the spotlight in 2010, New Girl was featured on local news shows and in newspapers around the greater Seattle area. Typically, Road Company shows are retired after two years when new material is written, but in the case of New Girl, the production was brought back for a third year due to high demand. Following the success of New Girl and the response from schools, we commissioned “Don’t Tell Jessica,” a play that specifically addresses student interactions via Facebook.
Our plays are designed to spark discussion at a schoolwide level and create a common frame of reference for members of the school community to talk about the problem. Our shows can empower students who are targeted by bullying to find an ally who can assist them in addressing the problem. Students who exhibit bullying behavior get the much-needed opportunity to see the face of the person getting bullied and can begin to empathize with that person’s pain. We provide teachers with pre- and postshow discussion questions to help students continue to explore the themes of the plays and ask penetrating questions. These cumulatively contribute to the creation and maintenance of a positive climate at school, with the play serving as one of the major catalysts. We’re trying to help these students find hope. Specifically, it’s the hope that we can all live and work together in a community and school environment where everyone is safe, respected, and valued.
A Positive School Climate Makes Everything Possible
We have a lot of really great anecdotes and ideas from educators included in our latest book School Climate 2.0:Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time. Below is one example from our friend Steve Bollar, who is a principal in New Jersey. He is an “in-the-trenches” expert when it comes to developing and maintaining a positive school climate. We highly recommend that you sign up for his regular “Ideas, Ideas, Ideas” newsletter which you can learn more about on his website. Here are his thoughts on why a positive climate at school is so important:
“The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.” That quote is one of the most profound statements about schools that I have ever heard. It is true that instruction and curriculum are important, but neither can be effective unless the climate of the school/classroom is centered on respect, clear expectations, personal responsibility, and recognition. Every school has a climate that is developed through the actions of the school leader. Therefore, it is vitally important that the school leader purposefully works to establish the climate in the way that he or she knows will best benefit the students and staff. The other option is for the school leader to do nothing, thus leaving it up to others to set the tone and develop the climate. That climate may not be positive, empowering, or productive. Instead, it may be demeaning, unclear, and non–student focused.
A school that has a positive climate rooted in clear expectations, and supported with recognition and respect, leads to students and staff making decisions that are in the best interest of not only the school but also themselves. Roy Disney once said, “When your vision is clear, decisions are easy.” It is so true within a school. When your climate, vision, and expectations are clear, deciding whether or not to do the right thing is easy. It leads to the thought process of “that’s the way we do it here.” When students are faced with a choice of going onto a website that is inappropriate or not, whether at home or school, the climate they are most exposed to at school comes into play. Therefore, making the right decision is easier to make.
True, it doesn’t work all the time. Within my building are many students who get into “trouble” with social networks, inappropriate websites, connecting with dangerous people online, and making poor choices in the photos they post on the Internet. Two years ago, we had a large spike in the number of issues and disciplinary action related to Internet behavior. Approximately 25 to 35 percent of discipline during the school year was Internet related. The following year, we implemented a morning homeroom meeting. During this 30 minutes once a week, two adults in each classroom would lead an activity or discussion that focused on the vision and expectations of the school. This practice, once a week, continued consistently throughout the school year. The results were amazing! The number of Internet-related disciplinary issues decreased significantly, and as did the number of overall discipline issues. Problems were either handled more often at the classroom level through discussion and guidance of the teachers, or the lessons learned and reinforced during those morning meeting times guided the thought processes of the students when opportunities to behave inappropriately came up.
At the end of each marking period, my administrative team would look at the discipline report and say, “Wow!” We did not start an anti-Internet campaign or increase the amount of Internet safety training. All we did was connect with students and purposefully strengthen the climate within our building around positive clear expectations and recognition. The end result was students making better life decisions. “The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.”
School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
We’ve been discussing the importance of school climate as it relates to bullying and cyberbullying quite a bit on this blog (see here and here for examples). Well, we just published a whole book on the topic! School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting is now in print and available from the publisher, on Amazon, or many other online bookstores. This is the first book on the topic of cyberbullying and sexting that focuses primarily on what can be done to prevent the behaviors from happening in the first place. We argue that “educators who establish a nurturing and caring classroom and school climate will make great strides in preventing a whole host of problematic behaviors, both at school and online.” The book provides concrete examples of how to do just that.
Here is an excerpt from the Preface:
This book seeks to explain and promote the importance of school climate in preventing teen technology misuse. Most of books and articles in print today simply describe the nature of cyberbullying or sexting (e.g., what it looks like, how much of it is occurring, and among whom). While this is an important first step, we seek to meaningfully build on the knowledge base and more explicitly connect the high-tech behaviors of teens to the school environment.
Much of what you will read is based on information we have learned through our decade-long exploration of the ways teens are using and misusing technology. We have completed seven formal independent studies involving over 12,000 students from over 80 middle and high schools from different regions of the United States. To guide the discussion, this book specifically features information from our most recent study, a random sample of over 4,400 middle and high school students (11 to 18 years old) from one of the largest school districts in the United States. Surveys were administered to students in 2010, and the information gathered represents some of the most recent and comprehensive data on these topics. We will also refer to the work of many others who have labored to better understand how adolescents use, misuse, and abuse these technologies.
In addition to the quantitative data collected, we have also informally spoken to thousands of teens, parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and countless other adults who work directly with youth. Our observations are essentially a reflection of their experiences. During these interactions, we have been fortunate to learn from those on the front lines about what they are dealing with, what is working, and what problems they are running into. The stories we hear are largely consistent with the data we and others have collected that will be presented throughout this text. We also receive numerous emails and phone calls on a weekly basis from educators, mental health professionals, parents, and other youth-serving adults looking for help with specific issues. These conversations help us to understand and consider the problem from a variety of angles and perspectives. All of the stories included in this book are real. In some cases the language has been modified slightly to fix spelling and grammar mistakes and improve readability, but the overall messages have not been changed.
In Chapter 1 we begin the discussion by focusing on the intersection of teens and technology and how the inseparability of adolescents from their high-tech devices affects, and is influenced by, what is going on at school. In Chapter 2, we outline the characteristics of a positive school climate along with some of the beneficial outcomes associated with such an environment.
In Chapter 3 we detail the nature of bullying in the 21st century. In many ways the bullying of today is very similar to the way it was when we were growing up. But technology has enabled would-be bullies to extend their reach, resulting in many significant challenges for educators, parents, and others who are working to resolve relationship problems. Cyberbullying, which we define as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, typically refers to incidents in which students threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle their peers through malicious text messages, web pages, or postings on Facebook or YouTube. It is clear that peer harassment that occurs on school grounds is a significant threat to a positive school climate. That said, online bullying also disrupts the ability of students to feel safe and secure at school. The vast majority of the time, targets of cyberbullying know the person doing the bullying (85 percent of the time in our research), and most of the time the bully is someone from their school. If students regularly post hurtful, embarrassing, or threatening messages to a fellow classmate’s Facebook page, for example, it unquestionably affects that student’s ability to feel comfortable, free, and safe to focus on learning at school.
Chapter 4 describes sexting, which we define as the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video that generally occurs via cell phone (although it can also occur via the Web). Some have described this problem in dismissive ways, calling it this generation’s way of “flirting” or characterizing it as a safer way to experiment sexually and come to terms with one’s own sexuality. While this may be true in part, engaging in sexting can lead to some significant social and legal consequences. We begin to tie everything together in Chapter 5, where we explicitly link school climate to online misbehaviors. Here again we argue that schools with better climates will see fewer cyberbullying, sexting, or other online problems among students. Ancillary benefits for educators who harness the power of a positive climate at school may include better attendance, higher school achievement, and more cooperative attitudes across the student body and among staff. A school with a positive climate is definitely more enjoyable to work and learn in, and can therefore lead to many other beneficial outcomes for students and staff alike. The remaining chapters of the book focus on providing you with strategies to establish and maintain a positive climate (Chapter 6) through peer mentoring and social norming (Chapter 7), assessment (Chapter 8), and appropriate response strategies (Chapter 9).
You can learn more about the book, including a full table of contents and reviews from folks who have read it, on our companion website, www.schoolclimate20.com. You can also like us on Facebook, and follow us on twitter. Let us know what you think!
Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation Launch, and School Climate!
Justin and I had a great time at Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation launch at Harvard University last week. It was amazing to be surrounded by such brilliant scholars, researchers, and practitioners from across the United States, and even a few from England and Australia. The professional event we were a part of was entitled “Symposium on Youth Meanness and Cruelty,” and this involved an all-day meeting and brainstorming session to identify priorities for the Foundation. Afterwards, the highly-publicized launch event at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre gave Oprah Winfrey and other luminaries like Deepak Chopra and the Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius the opportunity to ask meaningful questions to Lady Gaga about the genesis, role, and goals of her new Foundation.
I should mention that Lady Gaga also gave her mom Cynthia Germanotta the opportunity to share from her heart, as this Foundation (or Movement, as they would prefer to characterize it) is their joint project. Both were very eloquent and impressive, and we definitely appreciated what they had to say. Most important to me was the fact that they desired to do this work against the backdrop of solid research which could properly inform them as to what can work and what will fail. A handful of celebrities have come up with similar campaigns but have not sought the assistance of scholars in the field to let them know where and how to direct monies and other resources. Finally, I should say that it’s somewhat unbelievable that we were just a handful of feet away from arguably the two most influential women in the entire world, in our generation.
My task at the Symposium was to help lead the School Climate/Culture stream (there were five other streams which included: Classroom-based curricula, Curricula as campaign for a networked age, Evaluation and assessment, Grassroots and peer-driven initiatives, and Law and policy—which Justin participated in). I was particularly excited about my role in the school climate stream because of our forthcoming new book entitled “School Climate 2.0” – we’ll share more information about that in the weeks ahead. The Foundation is dedicated to youth empowerment, and believes that: (1) all youth have the right to be safe; (2) all youth need to have the skills to be successful; and (3) all youth need to have opportunities to be productive citizens. Our Stream goals were to identify gaps, holes, and issues in the school climate arena, and to inform the Foundation’s agenda in this space.
Here’s basically what we came up with together, as a team (including Rick Weissbourd – my co-leader, Peggy Sheehy, Peter Smith, Arthur Horne, Gary McDaniel, Dierdre O’Connor, Lee Rush, Howard Gardner, Deborah Temkin, Peter Wyman, Margot Strom, Larry Magid, Jeff Parotti, Ned Crowley, and Hannah Deresiewicz).
NEED TO KNOW POINTS:
1. Schools do not operate in a vacuum, but are rather embedded in a culture and society. Therefore, any focus on schools alone is limited. The shift needs to occur in culture and civil society, both from the top down (institutionally) and from the bottom-up (grassroots). That being said, schools are not powerless and have important access and resources (albeit never enough of the latter). Expecting schools to be the only site of social change, however, will fail to affect the entire environment youth inhabit.
2. In a similar vein, bullying is not an isolated youth phenomenon. Aggressive, prejudiced, and mean behavior is common among adults as well. Therefore, any solution to meanness and cruelty must confront these problems across demographics and while keeping in mind their causes (e.g. prejudice). Such a solution precludes adult-driven, vertical reflections and interventions that do not engage youth. As such, young people can contribute to these reflections, as they offer perspective and experience not available to adults.
3. Traditionally, students in schools are often grouped as “successful,” “lost causes,” “athletes,” “geeks,” “outsiders,” and so forth. Reinforcing these often artificial categories limits both young people’s identities and our imagination when it comes to interventions. For example, zero-tolerance policies classify rule-breakers as “bad kids” incompatible with the school. Schools should encourage and build structures that lead to cross-interaction between groups and micro-cultures. For example, low-achieving students working with high-achieving peers begin to adopt better behavior. This is likewise true when it comes to social exposure (e.g. Gay-Straight Alliances).
4. Successful programs out there are diverse but share some characteristics. These include:
- youth involvement in agenda-setting, implementation, and evaluation;
- sustained and more meaningful parent involvement;
- investment by teachers, administrators, system, and community, especially in terms of funding;
- attention to students’ social success as well as academic, moving away from narrow attention to academic standards;
- direct interventions for particularly at risk groups blended with school climate initiatives (paying attention to the vast majority that are doing fine, while also “catching” the 5% at high risk through personal interventions).
1. Prevention and intervention needs to begin at the youngest ages. While interventions for older young people are critical, there are diminishing returns to culture shifts once behaviors become firmly entrenched. Therefore, values and social-emotional skills should be part of core-learning goals from early education onward.
2. Training for the change-makers (teachers, students, community) should be undertaken strategically with express attention to cruelty and meanness. This is especially true for in-service and pre-service teacher training, which necessarily involves also meaningful feedback from young people. Likewise, progress toward this end should be assessed and made available to the public.
3. Supporting collaborative campaigns that harness youth collective power along with untapped resources, such as policy or even celebrity (this is where Lady Gaga can have a huge impact).
CROSS STREAM COLLABORATION:
1. Grassroots and peer-driven initiatives – school culture is created by everyone in the environment (and influenced by outside). Collaboration among all stakeholders guided by common principles will create comprehensive shifts. Relevant stakeholders include parents, law-enforcement, youth workers, mental health professionals, and others who work with and care about students.
2. Classroom-based curriculum: resources that draw on young peoples’ input and intrinsic motivation, including games, new media, social media.
3. Evaluation and assessment: Socio-emotional learning should be a core part of curriculum and mission, but standardizing it can be challenging and problematic.
BIG PICTURE IDEAS:
1. Young people have a collective intelligence that we do not have and cannot develop naturally. This is born of engagement with new media (game environments, virtual worlds, etc.). We can transcend the boundaries between youth and adults by using youth’s natural skills and intrinsic motivations.
2. Mini-documentaries can be created by youth featuring schools that are highlighting climate best practices, perhaps also tapping into the celebrity network of Lady Gaga for greater cache.
3. Collaborative efforts between youth, teachers, and other adults should be solicited and rewarded. It is important that we not create “adult solutions” to “kid problems,” but that we focus on human solutions to human problems.
As you can see, it was a pretty remarkable day. I know that the Symposium was just the first step in what will be a long dialogue and a lot of work in this area. We’re excited to be plugged in and will do what we can – with the help of so many other scholars and educators on the front lines – to assist Lady Gaga’s movement and make a measurable difference in emboldening students, equipping youth-serving adults, and promoting a kinder, braver world.
Cyberbullying and School Climate
There has been a lot of talk about improving school climate recently, in line with the U. S. Department of Education’s new focus for public schools across the nation (and their Safe and Supportive Schools initiative). I have recently discussed it in January at a NCPC summit, and covered it briefly two weeks ago while at the Bullying Summit in DC, but I’d like to expand on it for our readers. As a starting point, though, I need to provide a foundational backdrop. We’ll explore climate and cyberbullying in great detail over the upcoming months.
To begin, Welsh, Greene, and Jenkins (1999) have defined school climate as “the unwritten beliefs, values, and attitudes that become the style of interaction between students, teachers, and administrators…[it] sets the parameters of acceptable behavior among all school actors, and it assigns individual and institutional responsibility for school safety.” While that is a bit academic and wordy, I feel that it conveys what is meant. Basically, we are talking about the quality of life for students and staff on campus.
The benefits of a positive school climate have been identified through much research over the last thirty years. It contributes to attendance, student achievement, and other desirable student outcomes. Improving climate on school grounds has also been linked to improvements in student behavior – such as a decreased peer-on-peer bullying and an increase in perceived and actual safety.
In a recent study we conducted, students who experienced cyberbullying (both those who were victims and those who admitted to cyberbullying others) perceived a poorer climate or culture at their school than those who had not experienced cyberbullying. Youth were asked a variety of questions, such as if they “enjoy going to school,” “feel safe at school,” “feel that teachers at their school really try to help them succeed,” and “feel that teachers at their school care about them.” Those who admitted to cyberbullying others or who were the target of cyberbullying were less likely to agree with those statements.
We are continuing to explore this relationship, and believe strongly in efforts to enhance climate in schools across the nation. There are very practical ways to do this, and we’ll discuss them in forthcoming blog entries.
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Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (Corwin Press).
Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(16), 2094-2100.
Rigby, K. (1996). Bullying in schools: And what to do about it. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Stover, D. (2005). Climate and Culture: Why your board should pay attention to the attitudes of students and staff. American School Board Journal, 192(12).
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