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.

“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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.