Jake's hands were clenched and he had a weak smile on his face when he told me the joke his friends were laughing about. "I laughed, too," he said, "but inside I was filled with fear, fear that they might find out." Jake, a tall, slender high school junior, was referring to a gay joke that while not malicious, was a degrading word play. Jake is not alone.
The recent decision by Glendale Unified School District in Southern California to hire a private firm, Geo Listening, that will troll through the digital lives of teenagers has sparked widespread concern and reaction. Schools and parents, increasingly at a loss for how to ensure teens' online safety with the proliferation of social media and bullying, are beginning to outsource the work of monitoring.
During more than 20 years as a school administrator, I received numerous reports of bullying incidents from children, parents and teachers. Now that I'm the director of Not In Our School and bullying has become a topic of national discussion, I still regularly get calls from students and parents who share stories of tragic and worrisome incidents.
Sadly, it seems that terrible tragedy needs to keep striking in order for bullying to retain its status as worthy of serious efforts to eliminate it. The latest incident involves 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick's leap to her death in response to persistent cyber-bullying, and the subsequent arrest of two juvenile female honor students. While all this attention spotlights the serious consequences of this stubborn issue, schools and parents must be equally persistent in providing constant reminders of the dangerous and damaging impact caused by hurtful words, threats and actions when horrors like this aren't center stage.
I recently sat through a bullying prevention session for parents, and the conversation inevitably migrated to a discussion of cyberbullying, smartphones and other forms of digital media. Considering how ubiquitous smartphones have become, especially in high school, and now in middle school, questions about managing smartphones and educating students about digital citizenship are on a lot of parents' minds.
Restorative justice empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own, and it's growing in practice at schools around the country. Essentially, the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances. (This overview from Fix School Discipline is a wonderful primer.)
A parent shared a wonderful story recently about his 24-year-old son letting him know that he was going to change his passwords and asking if it was OK with him. The father chuckled as he shared this story, but he was also in a state of bewilderment that his son was still honoring their agreement from ten years ago -- the one where his dad would have access to the 14-year-old's passwords. Sure, the son had stumbled and misstepped, sometimes without the father's knowledge, but the trust factor was sealed with a safe agreement between parent and child, and that bond had lasted in to early adulthood. Impressive.
In theory, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs in schools are a great idea; students can use their own tablets, laptops and smartphones in the classroom, and can take advantage of a wider range of apps and programs than they might be able to normally access in school. There is a case to be made that doing so can make schools more cutting edge and capable of engaging students through methods that they're comfortable with. However, there's also a risk that BYOD could lead to bullying and inequality within schools. How, then, can BYOD be successful without causing these kinds of problems?
My last blog post shared stories from teachers who have been traumatized by administrators and fellow instructors. Today's post introduces strategies to counteract bullies' go-to move: rhetorical evisceration disguised as "helpful" critique. Don't think that the hostility will simply dissipate over time. Bullies are serial antagonists and need to be stopped before their harassment calcifies into a pattern.
Be warned that having a heart-to-heart with the victimizer might not work, but there are other alternatives. Before describing what strategies to try, the section below will discuss practices that backfire.
"When I came back one day after lunch, the warehouse people had axed the reading loft [on the principal's orders] . . . This was only the beginning . . . He stripped away everything that made my room unique . . . I want out." - Teacher
"I would take the dog for a walk and cry in the dark." - Australian Teacher
We’re used to media reports about children and teachers who bully students. A more hidden fact of school life is the extent to which teachers suffer at the hands of cruel colleagues and administrators. One in three teachers claim they have been bullied at work. In Part I of a two-part post on the subject, I will share the voices of teachers who describe being bullied by colleagues. Part II will discuss solutions.