Empower Bystanders to Improve School Climate

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on July 18, 2014

used under created commons courtesy of Saad FaruqueAs technology has allowed bullies to expand the reach and scope of their torment to an ever broader audience, it has also allowed for increasing numbers of others to see and potentially respond. Cruel posts on Facebook or humiliating pictures sent via a cell phone can be viewed by countless individuals, and the question becomes, what does a teen do when he or she sees such behaviors? In our research, we have found that 42 percent of students had witnessed other people being cyberbullied. We suspect this number is a bit lower than expected due to the wording of the question, which reads as though we were interested in experiences that were synchronous: that is, that they saw the cyberbullying as it was happening. In assemblies at schools, we regularly ask students to indicate by a show of hands if they “have seen cyberbullying.” Usually most of the hands go up.

Since adults cannot be everywhere to witness every adolescent problem (especially those that occur online), we should equip youth with the tools necessary to take some action. In fact it is likely that students will see or hear about these problems before adults. So what should teens do if they see technology being used in a harmful way? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, including the nature of the incident, the relationships involved, their expectation of future harassment or violence, and their interpersonal skills. We certainly do not want to put more youth at risk by pressuring them to actively intervene in situations that might not be safe (e.g., standing up to a physically aggressive bully), but we should give students guidance about what they can do. Minimally, it would be helpful for bystanders to carefully document what happened and then take the details to an adult they trust will respond appropriately. A bystander might also take the target aside to tell her that what happened was not cool and he is there and available to help make the problem go away. A student could also organize her friends to condemn the behavior without doing anything directly.

Sometimes it can be difficult for students to stand up to a bully, especially if the person doing the bullying is a friend. One way to address this concern is to encourage students who are put in this situation to respond in a way that is supportive of their friend but not of the behavior. So if someone is laughing about an embarrassing picture or mean-spirited video, students can subtly express their disapproval by not laughing along. A concerned student could also try to change the subject or encourage the friend who is participating in the hurtful behavior to do something else (like download a new app to their phone or explore a new website that is becoming popular).

No doubt many teens are more than capable of intervening on behalf of the victimized — by helping the target, redirecting the bully, or informing an adult who can respond. The problem is that most students don’t tell adults about their experiences or those of other students. Researchers Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon found that less than 20 percent of students who “saw or heard rumor-spreading, exclusion, harassment based on religion, gender, race and sexual orientation or who witnessed kicking or other physically aggressive acts” told an adult about the experience. Our own research similarly has found that teens are reluctant to tell adults about their experiences with cyberbullying. And whose fault is that? If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is primarily ours. If adults consistently, appropriately, and effectively responded to bullying, cyberbullying, or any other adolescent problem behavior, youth would feel more comfortable coming to us with their concerns.

Encouraging students to stand up for one another can complement broader prevention and response efforts and will result in a better climate at school for a number of reasons. First, it reinforces the mind-set among students that they are all members of the same community where everyone is looking out for one another. How can a school claim to have a positive climate if incidents of harassment are ignored, dismissed, or trivialized by students? Second, there is a greater chance that school personnel will adequately address inappropriate behaviors if students who witness such behaviors are emboldened to take action. If students know that any participation in cyberbullying is likely to be met with disapproval from classmates and, ultimately, potential consequences from school administrators or parents, they will hopefully reconsider their involvement in these behaviors.

Finally, we shouldn’t assume that all students will have the skills necessary to move from “standing by” to “standing up.” Instead, we should provide them with opportunities to learn what to do in specific situations. Educators can also use role-playing to help students develop strategies or bring students together in small groups to brainstorm and talk about these and other appropriate response techniques for a variety of situations, before they arise, which can help empower students to do the right thing when the time comes. They can also take advantage of the skills, experiences, and knowledge of older students to educate the younger ones about these issues. Taking some time to equip students with effective response skills will pay dividends in the long run as educators work to prevent bullying and develop a positive school climate.

Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time

Image credit: Saad Faruque (Flickr – Creative Commons)

Combating Bullying During Kindness Week

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on January 14, 2014

yellow people kindness viral

In my line of work, I have the amazing opportunity to meet incredibly passionate educators who care so much about students – and do all they can to create and maintain positive climates in which those students can thrive. I’ve known Becky Nahrebeski, a 9th grade Global teacher, for a few years now, and finally had a chance to be a part of a Kindness Week she and her colleagues planned and put together in October.  We are all about sharing success stories that encourage other administrators and teachers that bullying and cyberbullying can truly be combatted and addressed in creative and meaningful ways that make a real difference.  It does take a lot of work, but it is so worth it when you get to see the results.  I’ve asked Becky to share with our readers about the amazing things they’ve done (and are doing), and her thoughts are below:

Hamburg Central School District is a suburban district about 10 miles south of Buffalo, NY.  We have a student body of roughly 3700 students K-12.  We are a very high-achieving district.  We are always ranked in the top 15 school districts for Western New York.  We are ranked 81 in New York State and we are in the top 3% (ranked 682 out of 24,000) of schools nationwide and are a Silver Award winner according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 school rankings.  We have amazing students that, after graduation, make us proud.  We have dedicated teachers that love what they do.  We have a supportive administration that has the best interest of the students at heart.  We have fantastic parents that work with us and support us in any way they can.  We have an unbelievable community that stands behind us and helps out wherever they can.  Despite all of these fantastic parts working together, we still have students that hurt one another through bullying and cyberbullying.

We, as a district, refuse to ignore this issue.  In our district, we have a DASA (Dignity for All Students) committee comprised of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, a teacher, and an administrator to deal specifically with bullying.  This committee was started in preparation for the passage of New York State legislation (the DASA Act), and since 2011, we have been working on going through bullying reports to identify “hot spots” and determine our prevention efforts.  We have attended countless conferences where we learn the latest research on what is happening.  We educate parents, staff, students, and even our bus company on some of the best practices in bullying prevention.  We meet monthly to stay on top of everything going on in the district.

One of our most esteemed achievements was the planning of an anti-bullying week for our district K-12.  It was a massive undertaking, but well worth the hours we put in planning it.  Our preparation leading up to this week included a contest entitled “Create a Culture of Kindness.”  Students K-12 could enter the contest and compete in different categories.  For example, they could write a poem, essay, or song.  They could create an anti-bullying poster or public-service announcement video.  The goal was for them to take their skillsets and talents and apply them to help transform our school communities by making it cool to care about others.  The response we received was truly incredible.  It is amazing how perceptive and intelligent our students are on the issue of bullying.  It also became clear that it was an issue that our students cared deeply about, as was evident in some of their project submissions.  We had well over 100 submissions and it was very emotional and difficult to choose our winners.  If you ever are curious how deeply students care about the issue of bullying, put together a contest and you will see how affected your student population is.

Our week began on Monday with a staff meeting with Dr. Hinduja.  He trained our staff and shared with us important information about school policy and the best prevention and response strategies that have evolved, and how all stakeholders must play a role.  On Monday evening, we held a Youth Rally.  We had all our contest entries displayed for everyone to see.  We had vendor tables set up in our cafeteria for all to peruse.  Attendees had an opportunity to create a link in our chain against bullying.  Our band played, and our cheerleaders cheered, and it was a very festive and fun environment with snacks and beverages and a celebration of our students’ efforts!  We announced all of our contest winners right at the beginning of the evening.  Then we announced our guest speaker, Dr. Hinduja, who spoke to our attendees about technology and role of the parents in helping schools to combat the bullying/cyberbullying problem.  He also allowed time for Q&A, which was really valuable to our parents.

On Tuesday, we started our day with a survey we gave to all of our students in grades 6-12.  We wanted to make sure we could gauge how well all of our efforts were working throughout the course of this year.  We plan on doing a post survey later this year to compare our data.  All of the questions from our survey came from Dr. Hinduja’s book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard. Then, Dr. Hinduja spoke to our middle school and high school students.  He was dynamic and the kids really got a lot out of his presentation.  He addressed everything from being smart online, protecting yourself by keeping your information locked down, and the impacts that bad decisions can have on your life.  Students raved about how everything he discussed with them applies directly to them right now.  They took a lot away from his presentation. 

Students also watched the documentary “Bully.”  This was a tremendous empathy-building opportunity.  Students really got a strong message about not bullying and also to be a bystander that acts (upstander).  They felt such sadness for the kids that were impacted by the bullying and many felt they would not allow something like that to occur in our schools.  Students did debriefing activities for both of these activities where they had some discussion, some writing opportunities.  They also made Sorry Slips, and participated in a Paperclip Pledge.  A Sorry Slip is a slip of paper on which students can anonymously apologize for something they feel bad about.  A Paperclip Pledge is where students vow to not bully, and to step in if someone is bullying.  They get a paperclip with a ribbon and make a chain of paperclips, which then serves as a visual reminder of their promise.  In all, it was a fantastic day.

On Wednesday, Dr. Hinduja, our high school drama club, and our DASA team traveled to all four of our elementary buildings.  Dr. Hinduja spoke twice to each building to students grouped K-2 and again to students in grades 3-5.  He was great even with these age groups and delivered a message that they related to.  Opposite him, our HS drama club put on a performance of a skit they wrote and answered questions that they students had.  Then each school had their own plan for the rest of the day.  Throughout the rest of the week, our schools did follow-up activities that included pep rallies, classroom activities, and the hanging of visual reminders around the schools.  One common thread in all of our elementary buildings was a Create a Culture of Kindness quilt.  Each student created their own square by drawing or writing a message they got from the day.  The squares were then put together to form quilts.  It remains an awesome visual left over from our week.

The work in preparing for this week was intense, stressful, and at times, all-encompassing, but well worth every minute put into it.  Our students raved about the week and asked that we “do stuff like that more often.”  They made it clear that they don’t want our efforts to end there.  As such, we have some follow-up activities loosely planned out for the spring. We are hoping to bring in a speaker for a one-hour assembly that can speak on the merits of being an upstander, and give our students some great ways to “step in” if they see an instance of bullying.  We are also working on putting together a panel of students to share with our teachers what is really going on in our schools.  We are also hoping to create a Public Service Announcement for our community.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we remain inspired based on all of the progress we’ve made and interest we’ve received! In closing, I want to share the primary message we received from our students: they want to talk about these types of issues; they want to work with the adults in preventing instances of bullying!

New Year Ideas to Make Kindness Go Viral

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on January 7, 2014

yellow people kindness viral

Our first book for teens (Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral) came out a few weeks ago, and we’re really excited about its potential impact among students who have dealt with online harassment and want to do something meaningful about it (check it out if you haven’t already!).  That said, our publisher (Free Spirit Press) recently asked us to write a blog related to our work to encourage and equip educators with some ideas to kick-start 2014 with school back in session! We thought we would share it with our readers below, and so let us know your thoughts….

The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on the previous year while setting goals for the future. Most New Year’s resolutions focus on self-improvement goals (such as dieting, exercising, or learning a new skill). But why not also resolve to work toward an other-focused goal—and do your part to contribute to a better, kinder world? Lots of people share, tweet, and otherwise circulate “feel good” stories on social media about how others demonstrate compassion. The people who circulate them are personally moved. However, have you ever been moved to the point of paying it forward yourself, or—even better—helping to create a legacy of kindness? Your position as a parent or educator offers you the ability to influence legions of kind kids through modeling and intentional instruction.

Interestingly, research now shows that people who learn about, and practice demonstrating, compassion and kindness toward others are more likely to establish long-term patterns of positive behavior. Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and his colleagues have been studying the ways that compassionate behavior actually changes the brain. They found that “participants who learned compassion were more generous” and that “greater generosity . . . was associated with changes in the brain’s response to human suffering in regions involved in empathy and increasing positive emotions.” In short, encouraging kids and teens to be kind and caring can result in neurological changes that may lead to expanded and consistent empathy and compassion toward others.

With that in mind, here are some ways you can encourage the children and teens in your life to delete cyberbullying and make kindness go viral in the New Year.

Set Up a Social Media Compliments Page Most teens have a profile on one or more social networking platforms and are very comfortable navigating these environments. Perhaps you could encourage them to set up a separate account for the purpose of dishing out anonymous accolades to their classmates. This idea was made famous by Kevin Curwick’s “OsseoNiceThings” Twitter feed and Jeremiah Anthony’s “West High Bros” Facebook compliments page. Now dozens of social media accounts have been set up by teens for the purpose of encouraging and praising their peers.

Participate in Random Acts of Kindness More and more individuals in all walks of life are realizing that it’s actually really cool to be kind. It’s even cooler when kindness is dished out anonymously and unexpectedly. Encourage your students or children to engage in random acts of kindness in their school or broader community. Search online for examples of young people being kind to others to give them inspiration. Dozens of videos and even a Twitter hashtag (#RandomActofKindness) can direct you to ideas as well.

Create a Public Service Announcement Many teens have great ideas for promoting positivity that they would love to share with others. Give them creative freedom and let them loose to script out and record a short video with the simple purpose of encouraging others to be kind. They could interview their classmates or “famous” people in their school or community (like the principal or mayor). Leave it up to them about how to approach the activity—they’ll surprise you and hopefully come up with something really compelling! Then you can upload it to YouTube, your school’s Web page, or social media accounts, and otherwise use it as a teaching tool to reach so many others!

Make Posters A simple activity that kids of all ages can tackle is to design inspirational posters that can be plastered on walls around the school. It doesn’t take much artistic talent to inspire others to be kind with drawings or creative slogans. Teachers could work with a particular class or a specific subset of students to produce posters that could be covertly placed all over the school on Friday afternoon or over the weekend. The rest of the student body will return on Monday and be totally inspired by what they see all around them.

Promoting kindness doesn’t have to be a big production. The best ideas are often among the simplest. If you are an educator, maybe spend some time in the classroom brainstorming some ideas with your students. Parents, too, can talk with their children about ways to eliminate cruelty and encourage compassion. Working together, parents, teachers, and kids and teens can make tremendous strides toward combating cruelty in all its forms in 2014. Don’t just share stories of kindness. Make it a priority to write your own, and help others to do so as well!

Image source: http://bit.ly/1cNoNKr

What We’ve Learned About Cyberbullying in 2013

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on December 30, 2013

cyberbullying laptop kid

While Justin has recently posted a 2013 update on research-specific facts, I thought I’d provide a more general but broader update on all that we’ve learned and seen in the area of cyberbullying this year. Overall and in my opinion, it has been a great year and one that seems marked by solid progress made in schools, communities, and families who attempt to address and prevent harassment and hate online. Allow me to summarize my observations from 2013 below:

First, we have once again seen shifts in the popularity of various sites and apps among teens. Many times, the media is quick to demonize these online platforms and blame them specifically for promoting cyberbullying, but that is simply without merit.

We have repeatedly pointed out that cyberbullying is not the fault of the technology being used, but rather stems from root causes common to problems in human nature and human relationships. Simply put, cyberbullying arises when we have a population of teens who 1) are (naturally) struggling with their identity 2) dependent on peer perceptions for at least some of their self-worth 3) unable to always cope with stresses in their lives in a healthy way 4) unskilled in properly dealing with conflict 5) inconsiderate of the consequences of content shared or posted online 6) sometimes emotional, spontaneous, and shortsighted in their decision-making 7) lacking comprehensive education about etiquette, civility, empathy, and other socioemotional concepts both in the real world and online.

This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but those are the major factors. Please remember that the vast majority of users of a social network or app use it responsibly and properly. But there will be some who use it sometimes to harass, humiliate, or threaten others. Again, though, that is the minority (and often the vast minority) of users.

Second, we’ve spoken to tens of thousands of educators and students this year (and hundreds of thousands since we started). More and more of the policy and programming decisions being made in schools are informed, proactive, comprehensive, practical, and effective as compared to reactionary, misguided, piecemeal, ad-hoc, and disappointing in their utility. Years ago, many educators were simply not clued in to best practices that are currently evolving around the nation (and world) to deal with cyberbullying. They were often left to figure out things on their own, and this led to many well-intentioned but inappropriate methods of prevention and response. We have learned that technological restrictions and blocks are not very effective as kids have access to the Web on their smartphones in their pockets. We have learned that punitive responses – like suspending or expelling a kid – often don’t lead to a true change in behavior, nor deter the rest of the student body, nor always fit the offense (and overstepping one’s bounds in disciplinary measures may lead to lawsuits). We have learned that student assemblies work best when part of a larger multifaceted initiative (creating a positive school climate, social norming, student-led efforts, curriculum enhancements, staff and parent trainings) can be highly beneficial and valuable. As I stated in an AP article earlier this year, we ARE making progress. We should be encouraged. Outside of our Research Center, there are so many on the front lines of cyberbullying who are working very hard and making a real difference – and helping to get the right information into the hands of those who care for and work with teens. Our gratitude goes out to them as we continue fighting the good fight.

Finally, we are seeing great traction with efforts by teens to combat online cruelty with movements of kindness. We’ve fleshed this out in great detail in our latest book, but here I want to emphasize how big of a deal this is. If you are an educator, you understand that students themselves MUST lead the way. We’ve talked about Kevin Curwick, a (then) high-schooler who transformed his school via a Twitter account used to send out anonymous compliments to peers, and how this trend caught fire and led to students at many other schools doing the same thing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. He recently said, “Being kind is popular at school now—that’s the thing to be. Things like this are needed. I’ve definitely seen a shift to a happier, lighter, more positive air around [my school]. You walk down the halls and see everyone smiling.”  Here’s the kicker, according to Curwick, “Negativity gets people attention, but we can shift the tide, and use the Internet to be positive. A cool thing for me is bringing some hope about our generation.”

We completely agree. We’ve been to schools where – honestly – bullying and cyberbullying are not issues. They just aren’t. And this has been the result of lots of hard (but doable) work by students and educators there to cultivate and maintain an environment where people simply care about one another. That’s just how they do things there. And that simple philosophy has infiltrated all areas of interaction at that school. And all members of that school community subscribe to an informal “social contract” of sorts that perpetuates positive behaviors. It’s awesome. And it’s what is needed.

We wish you the best for 2014 as you tackle these issues at your school, and hope for small and large victories resulting from your efforts! As we keep you updated on what we’re learning, we’d love to hear from you about what you’re learning in the trenches (drop us a note!).  And as always, Justin and I are here if you need anything.

Image source: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/shutterstock_144042475.jpg

Addressing Discrimination to Prevent Bullying and Cyberbullying

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on September 11, 2013

In this line of work I get to hang out with teens all the time, and many of them amaze me with regard to all that they’re getting out of their K-12 school experience.  Others, however, make me sad because it seems that what made school awesome for me (being intellectually stimulated, seeing my friends and enjoying their company, and eventually finding self-worth, confidence, and my identity through personal and scholastic growth) has been forced into the shadows for them.  Instead, they are preoccupied on a daily basis with worry and fear.  Not just at school, but 24-7.  And that seems to take precedent over everything else – which, of course, is no way to live. 

It’s so frustrating to me because not only do these students struggle now, it’s probable that they will struggle in the future due to what they are missing out on at this crucial stage of their adolescent development.  Hopefully, life will open up for them, and things will fall into place, and everything will be amazing for them.  But I hate that certain wounds and scars from their school years will persist at least on some level.  Especially because much of it seems preventable.  Not all of it, but much of it.  And so that’s why we are so passionate about identifying and sharing best practices to educators and parents about how they can help.

We believe that schools across our nation should be sacred institutions for learning, where students feel secure and free to focus and interact without worry or fear.  We can’t do much about some of the things they worry and are fearful about, but we definitely can do a lot about harassment, hate, bullying, and threats of harm or violence.  We have a ton on our plates as educators, but this has to take precedent over other priorities.  We’ve told you that around 20% of youth are cyberbullied during their lives, right?  Well, we don’t want 20% of the next generation dealing with some or all of the fallout we’ve identified as consequences and outcome for those victimized (lower self-esteem, negative emotions, emotional and psychological issues, delinquency and crime, and suicidal thoughts/attempts). (Side note: if you need any of these articles, please contact us.)

Since you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you are the type of person who will step in when you see overt bullying or cyberbullying, and address it in some form or fashion.  Thank you.  That needs to happen every time, and we are encouraged to see increasing numbers of school personnel across the nation step up to the proverbial plate on this issue.  But what we’d like to see more of is a conscious effort to train and empower educators (administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and support staff) to preempt bullying and cyberbullying by identifying and correcting some of their contributive elements.  For example, incidents of hate and harassment are often rooted in discrimination of some sort, and so we believe that some meaningful progress can be made by focusing in on that particular element.  By doing so, it may prevent the manifestation of more serious conflicts and outcomes.

School personnel are morally and legally obligated to provide a safe educational environment for all students—one that is free from discrimination. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 requires schools to prevent and address sexual harassment and sex discrimination, and its interpretation has been broadened in the decades since its passage. It is safe to say that any form of discrimination occurring on campus that undermines a child’s ability to feel safe and concentrate on learning must be addressed if it is made known to school officials. Not only is addressing such behavior mandated by law, but not dealing with it could lead to claims of negligence and financial liability (as well as reputational damage) if harm to a student occurred based on discrimination.

We believe that all forms of peer harassment—on a fundamental level—involve some type of discrimination. This could be discrimination based on how someone looks, dresses, acts, speaks, or simply “is.” Youth can take the smallest difference and magnify it to cause drama, to build themselves up while tearing another down, or to indulge an impulse—in other words, just because they feel like it.

A quick story for you – and hopefully you can see the link…. We remember that when we were in school that we couldn’t wear t-shirts with inappropriate slogans or depictions. Occasionally, we heard of another student being sent to the principal’s office and forced to wear the shirt inside out or made to wait until his parents brought another shirt to wear for the rest of the day. This might not seem like that big a deal, but there is logic behind these rules and actions. First, inappropriate content on t-shirts compromises the positive, safe, wholesome atmosphere that schools strive to provide. That might sound idealistic, but part of any school’s mandate is to create and maintain a learning environment that is respectful, inclusive, and supportive – so that all students can have every opportunity to succeed. 

Second, such shirts can be offensive and discriminatory to other students and staff at school and therefore infringe upon their civil rights.  As a related example, the US Court of Appeals (2009) upheld a Tennessee school’s decision to punish students for wearing Confederate flag T-shirts, agreeing with school administrators that the shirts would cause a substantial disruption among students and staff on campus. Here, concerns of school safety amidst a climate of racial unrest in the community and on campus contributed to the ruling (demonstrating the importance of always taking into account the surrounding context of every situation).  Interested readers should also see Barr v. Lafon (2007), summarized here, as it details that schools can act to prevent disturbances and/or violence even without a “substantial disruption.”

Third, they unnecessarily attract negative attention and thereby distract students from learning. Schools, then, can respond to problematic content—or the behavior that creates such content—if its effects are detrimental to their purpose and goals (such as constructing and maintaining a safe school environment!). Such content and behavior start with inappropriate clothing, inappropriate words, and inappropriate actions (like shaming, excluding, and ostracizing), and if not dealt with can subsequently lead to more severe forms of interpersonal harm.

Educators, you have more authority than you think you do as it relates to these sorts of issues.  Take the time to address even the most subtle forms of discrimination you see.  Set a hard and fast line, and create a climate among everyone at school (adults and teens) demonstrating that “we” are all about inclusivity, mutual respect, kindness, and “bro” moves. Call it out when you see it, and end it one-on-one with the offending student or in front of everyone (if it was an accident or joke that simply wasn’t thought through and can serve as a teachable moment). The hope is that even though you can’t see or measure their value in the present, doing so will cut down on the frequency and scope of bullying and cyberbullying among your students in the future.