First Person

Adults often in the dark about children's bullying

Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, nearly dropped out of school because of relentless bullying as a high school freshman.

The relentless bullying Kevin Jennings endured as a high school freshman very nearly brought his academic career to a premature end. A high school counselor dismissed his complaints as groundless. His mother never learned what was happening until the first day of his sophomore year, when he simply refused to return to school, and he at last revealed his secret torment to her.

Fortunately, Jennings mother went to bat for him and didn’t back down. She demanded officials let her son transfer to a different school, which they were reluctant to do. She held him out of classes for a week until school officials relented, and he resumed his education in a new school, where he felt safe and where no more bullying occurred.

Today, Jennings, 47, is the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. A career educator, he has dedicated his life to ensuring that schools are safe places for young people. As a high school history teacher, he was faculty advisor for the nation’s first Gay-Straight Alliance student club and he founded the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.

On Thursday, he presented the keynote address to a group of educators, law enforcement officials and mental health workers gathered for the Colorado Safe Schools regional training in Pueblo. As he spoke, the specter of more than a half-dozen recent youth suicides related to bullying nationwide weighed heavily on the gathered participants.

Workshops addressed the growing threat of cyberbullying and “sexting,” and ways to measure and improve school climate. Effective suicide prevention and intervention programs were touted, and participants were even tutored in terrorism awareness.

But under it all seemed a growing acknowledgement that violence – either physical or emotional, actual or threatened – is as much a school concern as is math and reading. And that adults are often in the dark about what dangers lurk in young people’s lives and what torment goes on unrecognized and unaddressed.

“Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Period,” Jennings said. “If kids are unable to focus on school because they are afraid, they will not learn. If my office fails, everything else fails. Forget reading scores, retention rates, graduation rates. None of that matters if you can’t first make the kids feel safe in school.”

“People think if there are no guns and no drugs, it’s a safe school,” he said. “And of course we want that. But that’s the foundation, the floor, not the ceiling. The next step is psychological and emotional safety. If a girl is worried about what’s being written on her locker, or about the boy who is texting her from the back of the room, she can’t focus on learning.”

Colorado ranks roughly in the middle of the states in school climate factors that are related to safety. According to the recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 2009, a national study released in June by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 7 percent of Colorado students say they are afraid to go to school, the 29th highest percentage among states, Jennings reported.

More than 5 percent of Colorado high school students report carrying a weapon to school with them, 8 percent report being threatened with a weapon while at school, nearly 11 percent report getting into a fight on school grounds and almost 20 percent report being bullied while at school.

The reasons for bullying vary, but the most often cited factor is physical appearance. That’s followed by the perception that a young person is gay, or by how masculine or feminine the student appears to be. Disabilities, race or ethnicity, lack of wealth and religion are much less often reasons for bullying. “But not everybody gets bullied equally,” Jennings said. “A kid who is physically disabled is about one and a half times more likely to get bullied than a kid who is not. But a kid with autism is about six times more likely to be bullied. So the kids most vulnerable are those with emotional disabilities.”

Bullying impacts more than just the victims, Jennings said. Witnesses to bullying – and that’s just about everybody – don’t walk away unscathed.  About a quarter of youthful witnesses to bullying will actively urge on the bully. Another quarter, while not actively assisting the bully, will reinforce the bullying behavior by snickering or smiling. Another quarter will walk away and refuse to become involved one way or the other. And about a quarter will intervene, coming to the defense of the victim.

The Health Resources and Services Administration's Stop Bullying Now! campaign offers lots of resources for parents concerned about bullying.

When other youngsters do intervene, most often the bullying stops within a few seconds, Jennings said. But that happens less than 20 percent of the time. About 80 percent of the time, no one intervenes, he said.

“We need to quit separating people into categories of ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’,” he said. “Some kids are both victims and witnesses. And some are victims, witnesses and bullies themselves. We have a tendency to say there are just a few bad kids. But it’s so much more than that. Kids play multiple roles. It’s the behavior we need to focus on, not finding the bad kids.”

“This is something a lot of kids are really scared about,” Jennings said. “Parents want to know that we know what to do about this. And in fact, we do.”

What works usually is no surprise, said Del Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who updated participants on what evidence-based programs are worth investing in. What’s really surprising, he said, is what doesn’t work.

“Programs based on scare tactics do not work,” Elliott said. Boot camps, gun buybacks, DARE, peer counseling programs, summer job programs – none are effective. And some, such as the “Scared Straight” program that placed at-risk teens into locked prison cells alongside felons, actually make things worse, he said.

What does work are long-term, multiple-year programs that include life skills training, he said. Such programs provide young people with the strategies and skills they need to confront a variety of situations, and to cope with things they couldn’t cope with before. “There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets,” Elliott said. “You can’t talk with someone for an hour and change the course of their life. To change a life that involves a lot of dysfunction and anti-social behavior takes a lot of intense intervention.

Beyond that, there are steps every school, every teacher, every parent and every student can and should take, Jennings said.

“Every school needs to educate faculty and staff,” he said. “Not just faculty. A lot of bullying goes on one buses and playgrounds and lunchrooms. And kids pick different adults they feel comfortable talking to. At my school, the lunch lady heard things no teacher ever heard.”

Jennings said schools need policies that make it clear that no form of bullying will be tolerated, and staff must be held responsible for taking action every time they see something. “In one survey we found that one in four students had heard a teacher use the word ‘faggot’ in school,” Jennings said. “We need to call them on that.”

Parents need to hold schools accountable for taking meaningful action, he said. “If you don’t believe your kid will be safe, take your kid out of that school,” he said, citing his own long-ago experiences. “I was this close to being a drop-out, if it hadn’t been for my mother going down to school and insisting on my behalf.”

For more information:

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s Stop Bullying Now! Campaign and Bullyinginfo.org both offer a wealth of ideas, tools and tactics for preventing and responding to bullying.

Many children, particularly boys and older children, will not admit to parents or other adults if they’re being bullied. Parents should be vigilant for any possible signs of bullying. Such signs may include:

  • Coming home with torn, damaged or missing pieces of clothing, books or other belongings.
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises and scratches.
  • Few, if any friends.
  • Fear of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus or taking part in organized school activities.
  • Long, “illogical” routes when walking to or from school.
  • Loss of interest in school work, or a sudden drop in grades.
  • Sadness, moodiness, tears or depression at home.
  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomach aches or other physical ailments.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Anxiety and low self-esteem

Source: HRSA “Stop Bullying Now!”

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.