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Public Advocacy: Bully Pulpit

Upset girl

How to communicate to your community about using 'student-centered learning'

Daniel Kaufman

When it comes to school safety issues, not all threats are external. Certainly one safety issue that affects every school and school district in the country to some degree is bullying and its modern form, cyberbullying.

According to a U.S. Department of Education survey, during the 2012-13 school year, roughly one-fifth of students age 12-18 were bullied at school, and 7 percent said they were cyberbullied. And lest we think this is an issue that mostly affects older children, incidents of bullying were actually most prevalent in sixth grade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths…that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”

Bullying can include actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. All of these actions can have serious long-term academic, physical, emotional, and social consequences for victims. Children are especially vulnerable to bullying based on factors such as their weight, sexual orientation, and home language, or if they have any of a variety of disabilities, disorders, or chronic illnesses.

Beyond the moral imperative to eliminate bullying, school districts have both sticks and carrots to act. Federal civil rights laws require school districts receiving federal funding to intervene when peer bullying and harassment occurs. Every state has laws, policies, or both that address bullying and require public schools to adopt anti-bullying policies. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides more federal funding for improving school safety -- including bullying prevention -- and requires states to produce annual reports on how they are addressing bullying in schools.

What Can You Do?

So what can you as an education leader do to tackle bullying in your district? The federal government’s Stop Bullying website, which my team helps update and promote, contains a treasure trove of information about bullying prevention and response.

I especially recommend familiarizing yourself with the descriptions of evidence-based best practices for responding to the various types of bullying and cyberbullying, and proactively creating an environment to help prevent bullying from ever starting.

I won’t touch on all of these tips here. Instead, I will focus on how smart, frequent communications represents a critical piece of an effective, comprehensive bullying prevention strategy. Years of evidence and experience tell us that bullying behavior only thrives when good people -- students, teachers, parents, community members, and decision-makers -- remain silent about what they observe and hear is happening, from the classroom and playground up to the district level.

My hope is that as you develop, analyze, or revamp your district’s bullying policies, procedures, and practices, you keep one eye squarely on ensuring communications plays an important role.

In this vein, here are several important ways smart communications can enhance your overall bullying prevention and response strategy:

BEGIN BY ASSESSING THE PROBLEM IN EACH SCHOOL. As anyone who reads this column knows, I’m a big fan of using research as a starting point for designing a communications strategy around any issue. The research generally tells us that, while a large majority of children sympathize with peers who are being bullied, most will not report bullying to school personnel. Adults don’t always have their finger on the pulse of the nature and prevalence of bullying, youth violence, and the overall school climate. School board members and district administrators can ensure data is collected anonymously from students and other stakeholders in order to establish benchmarks, raise awareness, and motivate adults to take action. This should not be one-and-done: The temperature of each school in your district ought to be checked at least annually to determine if headway is being made in reducing bullying and cyberbullying and if new problems have emerged that require attention.

COMMUNICATE WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO CHANGE THE SCHOOL CLIMATE. Once a school has determined the type and degree of its bullying problem and where its school climate needs improvement, officials need to follow through. They can do this by taking practical and sustainable steps to reduce bullying and create a positive environment where youth feel safe and connected to caring adults and peers. Changing the climate of a school doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a great deal of time and persistence. But school leaders should be transparent with parents, students, staff, and district leaders about the problems they have identified and their immediate steps and longer-term strategy for addressing them.

SEND A CLEAR MESSAGE THROUGH WORDS AND ACTION THAT STOPPING BULLYING IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS. Effective bullying prevention and intervention require early and enthusiastic support from everyone, beginning with district leaders and staff to school leaders to faculty, staff, parents, students, and the surrounding community. First, with the collaboration of district staff, school-level personnel, parent and student representatives, and other stakeholders, develop strong and uniform anti-bullying policies for your district. Disseminate them regularly through all of your print, online, and in-person communications channels. As a part of these policies, school personnel should communicate clear rules about inappropriate behavior and expectations if bullying is witnessed, and apply developmentally appropriate and proportional consequences for bullying others. Ensure that principals and staff explain clearly to students what the policies are and how important it is for students to share incidents of bullying.

Prevention

Moreover, as many state laws require or encourage, all staff should receive training to understand the nature of bullying and its consequences and the policies and rules that are in place, how to work with others to prevent bullying, and how to respond appropriately on-the-spot whenever they see or hear about bullying. While the vast majority of school employees indicate that their district has implemented a bullying prevention policy, only about half had received training related to how they can make that policy work in their building.

The U.S. Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) and CDC have created a new self-directed online bullying prevention course hosted on StopBullying.Gov that features the newest research on bullying prevention, has quizzes throughout the training to test knowledge, and offers free continuing education for teachers and staff.

You also may encourage school leaders and staff to form school-based anti-bullying committees that include staff, parents, student leaders, and potentially community representatives such as health and safety professionals, elected leaders, faith leaders, and youth organization representatives. They should discuss the school climate, share information, and communicate regularly to all relevant stakeholders inside and outside the building.

Board members and district administrators can play a leading role in communicating with school leaders and staff to ensure they are prepared to deal with problems that arise on their watch and prevent bullying incidents from happening. This requires the right policies, programming, and resources, but it also means smart, ongoing, internal and external communications about the issue.

How has your district worked to prevent bullying and cyberbullying? Share with me your experiences and any communications-related ideas and questions.


Daniel Kaufman (dan.kaufman@finnpartners.com) is a senior partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. 
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