What the Best Bullying and Cyberbullying Assembly Speakers Do
Last week I shared what I feel are the most important considerations for schools planning to host bullying assembly programs. This week, I wanted to focus on speakers themselves. As you may know from your own experiences, there are fantastic ones out there, but there are also many who leave a lot to be desired. Justin and I regularly do assemblies all across the United States (and occasionally abroad), and truly enjoy visiting and working with students, staff, and parents in this capacity. However, we simply cannot do them for everyone, as much as we would love to. As such, here are my thoughts on what the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do.
Speakers need to be relatable.
You may have heard that you win or lose your audience in the first few minutes of your talk. That is a short amount of time, and a lot of pressure to grab and hold their attention. Relatable speakers will deeply connect with the audience by demonstrating complete familiarity of, and appreciation with, the offline and online world of teens (but not in a way that seems contrived or fake). In addition, they must immediately engage students – not with scare tactics – but by clarifying at the onset why what they have to say matters to the students’ very lives. And how their message is different than all of the other anti-bullying messages the students have heard before. And that ultimately, the speaker is on their side. This is usually conveyed differently for elementary, middle, and high schoolers, and is a critically important skill to master. If the presentation somehow betrays that the speaker (and, by extension, the school) just doesn’t “get” kids and teens these days, and doesn’t really understand fully what is going on, its impact will be greatly stunted.
Speakers need to be uplifting.
The overall message, on its whole, should be hopeful and empowering. No one wants to be completely bummed out and depressed after listening to a speaker. That totally and completely drains away the audience’s desire and motivation to try and make a difference. Yes, kids need to understand the weight of pain, regret, and potential consequences that surround bullying and cyberbullying, but they cannot flourish and meaningfully contribute to a better peer and school environment under that burden. No one can. And no one will want to. Speakers must make sure the presentation is balanced, and leaves students feeling fired up and equipped to foster change.
Speakers need to focus on the positive.
Many adults are keen to focus on teen conflict, drama, harassment, and hate, and share those stories in an attempt to motivate youth to do the opposite instead. But we’ve found that those good intentions don’t lead to the desired effect. Instead, it can come across as condescending and preachy. Being subjected to those stories makes teens feel that adults expect the worst of them, and that they need to be managed and controlled instead of trusted and empowered. Justin and I strongly believe that speakers must point out all of the good that teens are doing as they embrace social media and electronic communications, instead of emphasizing all of the ways in which students have screwed up. Speakers should try to inspire them by showing them examples of teens just like them who are making a difference by standing up for what’s right. There are an increasing number of sites sharing meaningful stories of teens (and adults) doing kind things! Check out our Words Wound movement, Huffington Post’s Good News, Upworthy, One Good Thing, or A Platform for Good for ideas. Ideally, seeds will be planted in some of the youth. Then, they hopefully will be motivated to replicate the ideas discussed, or come up with their own (specific to their skills and situations) and work to contribute to widespread change on their campus.
Speakers need to have great content.
The data, stories, and examples they share must align with and reflect what the students have been observing and experiencing on their own, or else their message will be discredited and dismissed as irrelevant. The presentation should be interactive, fun, solemn at times (I mean, we are ultimately discussing a pretty serious topic here!), memorable, smooth, and somehow unique. It should also be updated with the latest research (when appropriate, don’t bore them with bar charts!), trends, headlines, stories, and screenshots. Many speakers want to do this, but honestly never really get around to updating their presentations. This will not win over the audience, and keep them locked in to what is being shared. Speakers should remember that students have heard this message before, and their default reaction will be to tune out because of the way this topic has been browbeaten into them. This is why content is – and always will be – king.
Speakers should include solutions.
Students want to know who they can trust and confide in if they are being mistreated. They want to know how to really, truly get someone to stop being mean, and how to anonymously report problems, and how to block mean people on specific networks or apps. They want clear direction as to how to intervene so that it doesn’t backfire on them, and how best to help others in a way that is safe for them as well. They need clear, specific strategies that are age-appropriate and will actually work. At the same time, schools need to know that a good number of presentations are high on inciting emotional responses but low on solutions. Just make sure you identify your goals at the outset, so you are not left feeling like something was missing after the presentation(s).
Speakers should have a plan for follow-up.
They should have books, materials, activities, resources – something they can distribute to the school so that faculty and staff can debrief with the kids and thereby continue the conversation after the assembly (and, ideally, on a regular basis throughout the year). And the resources should clearly mirror the messages conveyed in the assembly, so that everything builds upon itself. If the speaker doesn’t have content to share, he or she should be able to recommend the best out there. This simply demonstrates that they know the proverbial lay of the land, and have taken the time to figure out what can help the school on a long-term basis with their bullying prevention goals.
Ultimately, a great speaker with great content makes for a great presentation. I know that sounds intuitive, which is why I wanted to drill down into the essential components to show individuals what matters the most. I hope the preceding helps those of you who are out there on the front lines, working hard to raise awareness on this incredibly important issue. If we are spending our lives (and the time, attention, and resources of schools) trying to communicate a truly transformative message, we must give it our best – and do it right.
Bullying Assembly Programs – What Schools Need to Know
Schools have been organizing assemblies to address bullying, substance abuse, and a variety of other student issues for as long as I can remember. I definitely remember sitting through them during middle school in particular, and – unfortunately – tuning out because I just didn’t feel like I could connect with the speaker. When it came to the assemblies about bullying, I thought to myself, “yes, we all realize that it’s wrong to be mean to others, but nothing really is going to change at my school, and so why even bother?” I admit that was quite a defeatist mentality, but I’ll blame it in large part on my disillusioned, angst-ridden adolescent self.
That said, I also remember a couple of more inspirational speakers who gave presentations at my schools – and while they weren’t at all about bullying, I did find them compelling, hopeful, motivating, and even instructive. And I didn’t feel like I was being preached or lectured to. That showed me I could be reached – it just really seemed to depend on the quality of the content, the tone of the message, the level at which I was spoken to, and the relatability of what was conveyed. The bottom line is that there is value in assembly programs, but their selection and implementation requires significant consideration and forethought.
The Assembly as a Bullying Solution
Since schools know that bullying and cyberbullying is a problem on their campus and want to do something about it, scheduling an assembly is often the very first idea that comes to their mind. It makes sense, because they seem to be an easy-to-implement solution. Typically, a school has a budget, they find a speaker (or just have one of their staff members do it), they schedule the day and time, and they bring that person in to do his/her thing in the auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria. This takes a lot less time and effort than all that is actually needed to make a true difference. But at least it is something.
To be sure, there are a ton of options available for schools in this space. Just do a Google search for “bullying assembly” or “cyberbullying assembly,” and you’ll find pages and pages of people, many of whom are self-described “experts” (perhaps they are, I have no idea). Many educators also receive unsolicited emails from speakers, encouraging them to check out their web sites and skillsets, and consider hiring them to talk to their students. The speakers’ web sites describe what makes their particular talks engaging, interactive, and motivating, and most provide testimonials highlighting the benefit the assemblies provided to the school and attendant students. All of this is good. Really good. There is definitely a need to reach kids with a gripping and powerful message that cultivates empathy, induces intentional kindness and respect towards one’s peers, and equips them to know exactly what to do if they – or someone they know – is being targeted. And there is definitely a need for many speakers to be out there doing their part to help. However, there are three points which we want to make to help inform your implementation:
1. Assemblies must be used as a single piece of a much broader effort.
While a bullying assembly does have some value, we cannot emphasize strongly enough that a “one and done” strategy will fall short and ring painfully hollow in time – even if it is the most heart-rending or entertaining or memorable or impressive or convicting talk your youth have ever heard in their entire lives. Students need more. Bullying prevention initiatives in schools can have assemblies as part of their programming, but according to the research need more substantive characteristics such as information sent home to parents, requests for parents to attend meetings (so as to get them on board to help educators with the message), instructive role-playing scenarios in the classroom, and efforts that lasted more than one day. Schools need more than a flash-in-the-pan event, even if it is really good. The speaker’s efforts can have great value as a launching pad from which other initiatives can take off. These can include a comprehensive anti-bullying curriculum, peer-to-peer programming, specifically training faculty/staff on how to teach digital civility and how to handle problems that arise, modules on socio-emotional learning, stress management, and conflict resolution, social norming, and building a positive school climate.
2. Consider the impact of the specific content
A school’s good intentions to impact, influence, and inspire their student body may backfire if the speaker or organization is not carefully vetted, and if the message is not carefully designed – with every word measured and every aspect planned and prepped for. For example, in just the last six months one school district has had significant reputational fallout in the community because they brought in a speaker whose interactive exercises may have contributed to excessive vulnerability (and even emotional and psychological pain) by students, and consequently further targeting by bullies, and at least one school district has been sued for indirectly contributing to a teen suicide by hiring a speaker who gave a presentation that may have planted ideas of self-harm as a viable option out of the pain one is experiencing.
3. Take the time to find a great speaker to optimize chances for success
Schools interested in bringing out speakers to conduct student assemblies must demonstrate due diligence and do their background research. This is one of the primary ways to find out if they actually are relatable and uplifting, and if they actually have great content that focuses on the positive, provides real solutions, and can lead to specific follow-up by the school. We suggest that educators reach out to colleagues at other schools for specific recommendations. Feel free to even cold call those you don’t know but who work at schools similar to your own. Feel free to review testimonials, but also know that a speaker’s testimonials may not paint a full picture. As such, we also recommend that you take the time to schedule a call with potential speakers so you can get to know their style, passion, convictions, content areas, and exactly how they will connect with your students.
My next blog will detail what I believe the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do, in order to illuminate what makes a great quality presentation to youth. In addition, Justin and I would love to hear your own thoughts, observations, and experiences in this area, and so feel free to weigh in!
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
Natural Day – Love Yourself Before You Can Love Others
Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to get to know Sanah Jivani, who is a senior at Klein Collins High School, and the founder of the international #naturalday movement. I was blown away by her story, and told her how important it was for others to hear it and be inspired by it (as I was). Please take the time to watch her YouTube video filmed earlier this year, and support her in any way you can. Finally, please share it with the teens you care for so they know they can take any perceived trial and turn it into a triumph – and even one that can positively and powerfully affect many other lives. Here is Sanah’s story:
First diagnosed with Alopecia at the age of three, I never expected it to affect my life the way did. For the first few years of my life, I had “Alopecia Areata,” which means hair loss only in certain areas. In my seventh grade year, however, I was diagnosed with “Alopecia Universalis,” which means total body hair loss. My hair was truly my crown of glory. It set me apart, it shaped my look and best of all, it helped me feel confident. But all of that disappeared the morning I woke up completely bald. Everything was gone.
Or, at least I thought it was. I had no idea what a positive impact my hair loss would end up having on my life. At the time, I was devastated. I remember immediately buying a wig to cover up my shame, embarrassment and sorrow. I remember standing in front of the mirror and crying for hours, desperately wanting to be anyone but myself. Most of all, though, I remember the hate.
I remember the day the girl in the locker room who called me out in front of everyone for always changing in the bathroom stall. She figured out I wore a wig, and told everyone the sad, sad truth: I was too scared to change in front of everyone because I was scared my wig would slip off.
I remember the day I opened my locker and a note slipped out. I carefully unfolded it, not knowing what to expect, but almost threw up when I read the title. “Fifty ways to go KILL YOURSELF” was clearly printed at the top with black ink. I wanted to die right then.
I remember the day I logged into Facebook to see fifteen notifications and one friend request…. I had been tagged in several statuses by the “Sanah BurnPage,” a profile which also added me as a friend. It was a profile dedicated to posting incredibly cruel status updates about me. The first post? “Sanah Jivani wears a wig.” I felt more exposed than ever.
I remember all of these days, sadly, and the wounds they left on my heart may never disappear. I don’t think the eighth grade girl inside of me can ever get over getting asked to homecoming as a “joke.” These sick barbs and pranks became too much, and I slowly watched my life spiral out of control.
I think the day I knew I needed help was when I received a letter in the mail saying if I received one more absence in History class, I would get denied credit. I used to love History. At that moment I knew that I had lost control.
A week before my freshman year began, I ditched my wig. My hands trembled as I posted a video on Facebook telling my story. I didn’t know what to expect. At first, I honestly thought the world might end. I honestly thought my friends would stop being my friends and my relatives would be so ashamed that they wouldn’t want to associate with me. I honestly thought what I was doing was dumb, but I did it anyway. I did it because I couldn’t handle hiding who I was for a second longer. I did it because I wanted to share my story, even if my voice was shaking. I did it for me, and no one else.
The moment I clicked “post,” I was set free. Tears filled my eyes and panic filled my hearts moments afterwards, but I didn’t regret it one bit. I knew that this was the first step to loving myself completely. I knew that this fifteen seconds of insane courage would change everything. Most importantly, I knew I no longer was going to hide, and a huge burden was suddenly lifted off my chest.
It’s like the sun started shining and the birds started chirping again. A sense of freedom filled me. Even though everything was still far from perfect, I knew that with this new freedom, I could overcome everything. I felt empowered by the comments people left on my Facebook page after reading my story and learning about my journey with the wig, and I finally understood that people can only love you once you learn to love yourself. I also learned that from now on, my life wasn’t only about myself… It was about all the people I could inspire. That night I became a role model, whether I liked it or not….
After the buzz and Facebook comments of the first few days died down, I realized how bumpy the road to self-love would be. I realized that loving myself was much easier when I received “You’re beautiful” comments on my video. I realized that while this first bit of strength was a wonderful boost, loving myself would require daily courage. The hardest part, though, was realizing that this was a battle I would have to learn to fight on my own.
I would have to learn to love myself the nights when I sat on my bathroom floor crying, because life started becoming way too overwhelming.
I would have to learn to love myself the days at the grocery store, when a little girl stared at me and tugged on her moms purse and innocently asked, “Mom, is that a girl or a boy? And why are they bald?”
I would have to learn to love myself at my worst and my best, during the hard and the easy.
And it’s a daily journey; some days I feel like the prettiest girl in the world, and others, I just want to stay in my room and hide. Some days I love being a role model, and others, I just want to be a teenage girl. Most days, though, I am completely in love with my life and my journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
Self-love is an amazing gift everyone deserves to discover. Walking around on a windy day and feeling the breeze hit my bare head is the most rewarding thing ever, and it makes every day worth it. But, as happy as my new found confidence made me, I felt sad. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I had this new and amazing self-love and confidence while others had to suffer. It hurt me to know that people were in the same position I was in just a year ago.
With that in mind, my best friend and I started a “Natural Day” at my school. Natural Day, or February 13th (the day before Valentine’s Day, because it’s important to love yourself before you love others) is a day I challenged students to let go of the one thing that tied them down. Everybody has a “wig” whether it is their hair, make-up, or something deeper than physical, such as a past story that haunts them. Natural Day is about letting go of all of that. It’s about being free, and learning to love yourself the way I learned to love myself. And that’s exactly what I wanted for the students of my high school.
My best friend and I made posters, spoke on the morning announcements and did everything we could to spread Natural Day’s message. The most powerful moment, though, was when I somehow formed the courage to stand in front of the whole school and share my story. I was a freshman trying to get a school full of upperclassmen to support a movement I made up. I remember standing on stage in front of the whole school, pouring out my heart and journey. Tears filled my eyes as I ended with the statement, “If I can do it everyday, you can do it once.” The cafeteria filled with applause, and I knew I finally connected with my peers. The next day, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a school full of people who dared to let go, just like I had.
Every year at my school we have strived for a bigger and better Natural Day. The next year, my friend and I hand-wrote 2,000 sticky notes with positive messages such as: “You’re Beautiful” and “Stay Strong.” Although our hands were cramping, we stayed at the school late in the evening hanging them up on the day before Natural Day. Seeing the students’ reaction as they walked in and stuck the sticky notes in their binders made every moment worth it.
Of course, there were those who responded with negativity. There were those who crumpled up our sticky notes and laughed at the freshman girl trying to make a change, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind because for the first time in four years, I saw my good friend come to school without make-up. I saw a senior boy who had an abusive past open up about his history on Natural Day. I saw courage, and courage and strength always rises above hate.
At first, I was really content with seeing the girls and guys at my school open up and let go of their insecurities. Soon after, though, I began to feel like my efforts weren’t enough. I wanted to do more. Seeing Natural Day blow up was amazing, but I wanted other schools and communities to experience its impact as well. So, I decided to contact several school counselors, a number of self-esteem organizations, and created a video that eventually went viral. I talked to whoever I could and shared Natural Day’s story. I did everything to make this movement spread, because I understood the importance of it.
Today, Natural Day is in 28 different countries and 11 schools around the world. Schools participating host Natural Day’s similar to the one I held at my school. Countries that don’t have schools participating use “#NaturalDay” on social media to post pictures and share stories of courage. Everyone can participate, and that’s one of the things that makes Natural Day so special. The whole world’s able to connect, open up and provide each other with support. Sharing your story isn’t as terrifying if you’re not in it alone. On Natural Day, no one’s alone.
Although Natural Day has reached heights further than I could dream, the road here was no easy one. Making Natural Day an international movement has proved to be such a big challenge. One of the hardest parts is spreading the word. Everyday I’m doing something to share my story and let someone know about Natural Day. I’m spreading the world however I can, and I’m not going to stop until it’s on every calendar ever printed and trending worldwide on social media. Recently, I have also gotten the amazing opportunity to be the founder of a non-profit called LYNS or Love Your Natural Self. Hosting Natural Day as a non-profit this year will be a huge blessing, and I can’t wait to see where this journey will take me.
Another major challenge is funding. I send t-shirts, wristbands and other materials free of charge to all of the schools participating. I also present Natural Day at conferences and schools around around the country, and paying for these trips has become very expensive. I started collecting sponsorship money for Natural Day, hosting events at local restaurants and even starting online campaigns to raises funds. Every penny truly helps.
The biggest challenge, though, is all of the days I feel unmotivated. It’s the day’s where my friends are out at football games, and I’m at home typing up emails about Natural Day. It’s the day’s where I feel like I’m not making a difference, and nowhere close to changing the world. Then I remember why I’ve continued doing this for so long. I think back to the first International Natural Day that ever took place, and I think about a picture I saw. It was a girl going without her wig for the first time ever. I think to myself, “I may not be changing THE world, but I am changing HER world.” And that’s enough for me.
Natural Day has made an impact on so many lives. I’ve seen people open about abusive pasts. I’ve seen people go without the make-up that hides their acne. I’ve seen people be set free. People tell me I’m a hero. The truth is, I’m no hero. I may host Natural Day, but the true heroes are everyone who posts a picture on that day. The true heroes are the people who stand up and show courage that I know they have deep down inside of them. The true heroes are the people who inspire me far more than I could dream to inspire them. They are the ones who make Natural Day as life-changing as it is. I could not be more grateful for all that has happened, and all that is to come!
Empower Bystanders to Improve School Climate
As 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
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
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
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
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.