First Person

Adults struggle to grasp "new" bullying

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Youngsters may feel constantly harassed by threatening text messages or hurt by ugly posts on online bulletin boards, but fear keeps them from telling their parents.

“The reason they’re so reluctant to tell their parents is they’re afraid they’ll take away the technology, which is the last thing they want to happen because that’s how they connect with everybody in their world,” said Christine Harms, outreach coordinator for the Colorado School Safety Resource Center and EdNews Parent expert.

Parents and teachers have a lot to learn about the complex dynamics of bullying today, say experts in the field. While playground bullying may look much as it did a generation ago, that’s not even the half of it any more, and adults may not fully appreciate just how bullying has changed and how it may be impacting a child’s physical, emotional and academic health.

Upcoming conference to focus on changes in Colorado law

On Friday and Saturday, Sewall Child Development Center present its third annual Teaching Beyond “Normal” conference, and focus on bullying prevention through early intervention. The conference, open to the public, is at the Adams 12 Five-Star Schools Conference Center in Thornton, and cost to attend is $95 for one day or $150 for both days. (Go here for more information about the conference, including speakers and topics.)

Among the topics:

  • Cyberbullying
  • How to raise resilient and bully-proof children
  • How changes in the law – including new anti-bullying laws in Colorado and recent court rulings – may impact how schools handle bullying

“The question I get asked most often is ‘What’s different now?’” said Linda Kanan, director of CSSRC and another EdNews Parent expert. “Bullying happened when I was a kid. But what’s different is the persistence of the bullying and the nature of it, given the cyberworld.

For more information
Bullying prevention recommendations for parents from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder 

A Statewide Blueprint for Bullying Prevention

Best practices in bullying prevention and intervention

Cyberbullying Fact Sheet from the Cyberbullying Research Center

“Years ago, going home at night was a haven of safety away from incidents that might happen with their peers at school,” she said. “Now, because of 24/7 communications, text messaging, Facebook and other online media, a lot of bullying goes on at home and into the night, all the time for kids. They can’t get away from it like they used to.”

A widespread but often undocumented phenomenon

Bullying remains, at best, a widespread but sometimes difficult to identify phenomenon among children. In Colorado, the only recent bullying data comes from the 2009 Healthy Kids Survey, which found that 19 percent of high school students report being bullied on school property.

“But we know that bullying goes down after the middle school years,” said Kanan. “Awhile back the Colorado Trust did some research and found up to 57 percent of kids grades five through 12 reported bullying.”

Particularly at risk of bullying are gay or lesbian youth, or those who are perceived as anything other than heterosexual. The Colorado School Climate Survey, taken in 2009 but just released last month by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, found that 97 percent of LGBT students reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school, 52 percent were pushed or shoved because of their sexual orientation, and 30 percent said they’d been physically assaulted.

Schools have a moral, legal obligation to intervene

In July, a California school district, the Tehachapi Unified School District in Kern County, near Bakersfield, became the first school district in the nation forced to settle with the U.S. Justice and Education departments after federal officials found it violated the civil rights of a 13-year-old gay student by failing to stop persistent bullying of the boy. The boy eventually committed suicide.

As part of the settlement, that district must enact new policies and strategies to eliminate gender- and sexuality-based harassment. The implications for school districts nationwide are clear: schools have both a moral and a legal obligation to intervene in such bullying.

This past spring, the Colorado Legacy Foundation released “A Statewide Blueprint for Bullying Prevention,” a report based on the Statewide Bullying Prevention Summit in April. Summit participants found that schools and teachers in Colorado are committed to addressing bullying, but that actual practice sometimes falls short of intentions. While 98 percent of teachers said it was their job to intervene in bullying, only 54 percent reported receiving training in their district’s bullying policies. Teachers identified the greatest areas of need for training as cyberbullying and sexting, as well as bullying related to sexual orientation, gender issues and disability.

This year, the Colorado legislature beefed up the state’s anti-bullying statutes, adding language to address the growing problem of cyberbullying, and making evidence-based resources available to schools, Kanan said.

“They also added some encouragement for schools to take a look at dress code policies, to look at surveying the nature of bullying on campuses and to think about having a team of people who can respond and guide the school,” she said.

Kanan said Colorado schools must also now have in place appropriate disciplinary consequences for students who bully, and must prohibit retaliation against students who report bullying. In addition, schools are now required to report incidents of bullying when they file reports of other disciplinary procedures with the state.

No safe haven from the cyberspace bully

Increasingly, however, much bullying takes places in cyberspace, which is often beyond the reach of schools. National surveys indicate about 20 percent of young people report being victimized at some point online or through text messages.

A study published in April 2010 found that 14- to 17-year-old girls send and receive an average of 100 text messages a day,” Kanan said. “That’s the impact of technology on our kids.”

Cyberbullies have one huge advantage over traditional playground bullies: they don’t ever have to look their victim in the face. They don’t have to see first-hand the pain they cause.

“The cyber world doesn’t allow us to see impact on another person,” Kanan said. “I can’t see you crying or see how upset you are because you’re removed from me. It takes away the feedback loop that teaches children ‘Oh, I just did something to hurt someone.’ We want kids to have face-to-face interactions so they can see how their actions impact others.”

Kanan says parents must be intentional about teaching their children to be empathetic.

“Lots of parents teach a child not to take a toy away from someone else, but they fail to go one step further, to show that child how taking a toy away hurts another person,” she said. “You have to be explicit about that.”

Parents must monitor children’s use of technology

Harms advises parents to be pro-active in monitoring their children’s use of technology. One tip: insist that children’s cell phones be put in a parent’s bedroom at night – because it’s not just the phones that need to be recharged.

“I believe the figure is 25 percent of girls in a relationship with someone are getting either phone calls or text messages all through the night between midnight and 5 a.m.,” Harms said. “Parents may not know that their kids aren’t getting any sleep because they’re spending all night chatting with friends.”

Other tips:

  • You SHOULD “friend” your kids on Facebook, so you can read their posts and have some idea about what they’re chatting about. But, says Harms, be aware that savvy youngsters may have multiple Facebook accounts, and they may willingly grant you access only to some of them. “There’s the one they use for their parents, and there’s the one where they post inappropriate pictures,” Harms said.
  • If you believe your child is being cyberbullied, save the evidence. Take screen shots, or if you don’t know how to do that, then physically take a picture with a camera of threatening messages. Save emails, in case you need to go to police. If you can figure out who is sending threatening messages, you can contact the sender’s internet provider and lodge a complaint. “Sometimes, it’s enough just to block the communication and ignore the bully, because the bully is looking for the satisfaction of getting your kid riled up,” Harms said.
  • Consider putting spyware on your computer. Youngsters will bristle at parents who do this, Harms warns, but it may be worth facing their youthful wrath. “Let your kids know that it’s not so much to keep tabs on them but so you can see what’s coming in. Let them know that you will periodically look at all their messages.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.