Let’s talk about bullying

Bullying is a behavior that most have witnessed at some point in their lives. Whether as a target, a bystander, an ally, or even as a perpetrator, most individuals can recall a specific incident seared in their memories. It has become clear that there is no one form of bullying and there’s no one type of bully.

The search for a remedy and best solution is elusive, but thanks to the efforts of anti-bullying advocates such as Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary Bully, the discussion is being brought fully into the open.

A group of community agencies including the YWCA and Junior League are looking to jump-start the conversation in Greenwich. On Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Bow Tie Cinemas, they sponsored a screening of documentary movies Bystanders: Ending Bullying and The Bully Effect. Following the films was a panel discussion with Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, Marji Lipshez-Shapiro of the Anti-Defamation League, Meredith Gold of the YWCA, and Ed Moran, a social worker at Family Centers. The panel also included two Greenwich High School students, junior Cassandra Haid and senior John Clarke.

The content of both films revealed a harrowing picture of the experiences of targets of bullying. One film, The Bully Effect, a CNN special recapping Hirsch’s 2011 film Bully, highlighted the story of a teenager named Alex Libby.

As a youngster, Alex was mercilessly bullied at his elementary school in Oklahoma, with remarkably little done by the school administration, to the great frustration of his family. Ultimately, they were forced to relocate to another state, where Alex grew to be a vocal advocate for anti-bullying.

Upon seeing the graphic footage of kids attacking Alex on the school bus, parents in the audience were visibly aghast. For some in the audience, it echoed experiences they themselves had faced or witnessed their children undergo. After viewing the film, most were wondering why the other schoolchildren hadn’t intervened and what was stopping them.

The second screening sought to unpack these questions further. Bystanders: Ending Bullying highlighted the impact bystanders can wield in ending bullying. According to the film, roughly 85% of students see bullying happen but do little to help. The documentary featured real kids talking about bullying that they’d experienced and bullying that they themselves had done to others. The movie emphasized the fluid nature of bullying and its surprising cycle, with kids alternating between roles as bully and target.

The audience was given a comprehensive overview of bullying: what it is, what schools and parents can do and how students can transition from being bystanders to allies. Both films were careful in defining bullying not as merely isolated inappropriate behavior or occasionally unproductive relationships but as repeated and targeted behavior that’s intentionally meant to intimidate and to harm. But its shape and form is far from uniform. It can be name-calling, spreading rumors, physically injuring another, or even leaving someone out.

It can happen in person, in school, at home, on the bus, or increasingly now, online. There is no doubt that bullying occurs in schools and its permanent eradication may be impossible. However, schools and parents can be active in identifying and productively addressing bullying when it is reported and in encouraging targets and bystanders to come forward.

The Greenwich community, from local agencies to the public schools, is working to change the social conditions that facilitate bullying. In the discussion after the screenings, panelists talked about the specific efforts being made in the community. Audience members, consisting largely of parents and public school administrators, also got the chance to speak about their experiences and ask questions.

Dr. McKersie discussed his efforts in “building a caring community,” citing a recent project he has undertaken of reading a Dr. Seuss book touching on bullying to third graders in town. He recognized the challenging and emotional nature of bullying and talked about his long-term hopes for the school system.

“I am trying to build a place that has great compassion for every one of our nearly 9,000 students. I’m trying to build a place where our nearly 1,300 staff know that the right thing is to love our students,” said Dr. McKersie. “My hope is over time to build a caring community where the right thing is to be compassionate, to stand up, and to not be shy to say, ‘I love someone, I want to care for them.”

A hot topic of the discussion centered around what the Greenwich school system is doing to combat bullying. One parent asked why the films shown weren’t actively being screened in schools as an important advocacy tool. In response, Dr. McKersie talked at length about a system of “norms” in place and referred to a two-page document handed out that outlines the steps taken by the district.

“We hear the pain parents are expressing. We are full-on focused on this. We have a whole policy and set of procedures around safe school climates, we have norms that are now in every single school,” said Dr. McKersie.

The norms are as follows: To be here, to be safe, to be honest, to care for self and others, to let go and move on. The safe school climate system hinges on this set of recommendations, which are used throughout the district from kindergarten up to high school and posted prominently in all school buildings. According to the two-page handout, the district’s commitment to creating a safe school climate entails multiple levels of action.

Each school has a safe school climate liaison and committee that includes parent representation. All teachers are responsible for introducing the norms in the first month of school and reinforcing them throughout the year, particularly during morning meetings such as homeroom. At the beginning of the year, teachers are educated in the norms and the expectations of safe school climate.

According to the school administration, this constitutes a comprehensive “school-wide plan for teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors, providing consistent, well-articulated consequences for negative behavior and creating a positive and safe school climate.”

However, several parents in the audience shared their frustrations with the schools, saying that in that their experience, Greenwich schools were doing little to address bullying, even when reported to administration. Though the norms posit a set of defined consequences in place, when asked about the specifics of the disciplinary process, Dr. McKersie claimed a “case-by-case basis.”

“If we have a bully situation alleged, we then go in very intensively on that. … If it’s alleged, if it’s brought up, we dig into it and deal with it. … Then those consequences are dealt with through our disciplinary process,” said Dr. McKersie.

All panelists stressed the importance of this being a work in progress and that it was a struggle to keep all of those involved on the same page. Parents in the audience repeatedly stated that the “wrong parents were there,” that the audience was most likely full of parents of targets but not the parents equally involved, the parents of bullies.

According to the panelists, bullying education should be all-inclusive, with all school administrators and parents firmly within the community conversation.

“I do think having forums like this are a beginning and I hope this doesn’t end here. It comes up every program, that the wrong parents are here, that we need the parents of bullies,” said Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro. “But as you see with the movie, there is a lot fluidity, a lot bullies who are also targets, and we need all parents. That’s how this works: to learn and to be able to speak to other parents about this. It’s a conversation for everyone.”

Parents in the audience also suggested concrete actions they believed the schools could implement. Several parents asked why values classes were not incorporated into the curriculum, saying that confidence and self-esteem were equally as important as, if not more significant than, classes such as home economics.

To this, Dr. McKersie responded that in his experience, having worked at values-based Catholic schools, the method simply didn’t work. He said it was essential to weave in these lessons of compassion and norms organically within the curriculum. GHS junior Cassandra Haid cited examples of steps taken by the high school, such as its annual Diversity Week and teachers connecting their lessons back to topics such as diversity and acceptance.

Cassandra and GHS senior John Clarke also spoke about Names Day, an event that began as part of an Anti-Defamation League initiative in which both students actively participate. As part of this annual event at GHS, freshmen discuss bullying and prejudice and are encouraged to share their own personal experiences, in the hope of shedding light on bullying.

Two points agreed upon by all in the room were the challenge of getting targets to come forward and how best to promote being an ally. One parent proposed rewarding allies for standing up. Both student panelists responded that being a friend to a target and seeing bullying stop was reward enough.

“You don’t really need a material reward because you know internally that if you’re doing something to help someone else, you feel good about yourself and you’re doing the right thing, and I think that’s plenty,” said John.

While the bulk of the conversation focused on the school administration’s responsibilities, the conversation eventually turned to the role parents play. As one audience member put it, “Schools aren’t surrogate parents,” and parenting, especially as it pertains to modeling productive behavior, can directly influence a child’s actions.

“Modeling hasn’t come up yet. How are we behaving? What are our kids seeing us do? Because ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ does not work. … We need to be really careful about how we’re behaving,” said Ed Moran, of Family Centers.

The audience was encouraged to leave with the thought, What can I do? and to engage in a dialogue with their kids, other parents and school administrators. The conversation is multi-faceted, necessary, and the onus is nobody’s alone.


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