First Person

Bullying Prevention Is More Important Than Ever

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I was bullied as a kid. I was taller than most girls and boys my age and, coupled with a boy’s haircut, I earned the monikers "Mr. Caneva" and "Jolly Green Giant." Although the names bothered me enough to force me to grow my hair out and avoid the color green entirely, they melted away every time I stepped on the gym floor to shoot some hoops.

Unfortunately, being bullied didn’t keep me from bullying others—like the girl with more pimples than me or the shortest boy in the class. My teachers did little to stop this, but tried to reinforce ethical behavior. "Treat others as you would like to be treated," "Your parents raised you better," and "You know that they don’t really mean those words," were common phrases. Sometimes, their words were enough to stop the teasing; other times, both the bully and the victim had to grow out of it. In my case, the teasing stopped when I entered high school with longer hair and found students even taller than I was.

As a high school teacher for nine years and school librarian for four years, I’ve often used those same statements with my students when I saw in-class bullying happen in the form of taunts and name-calling. But these days, it seems as though victims of bullying have few ways of escaping their bullies. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students who are bullied are more likely to experience poor school adjustment, anxiety, and depression, or have difficulty sleeping. An 11-year-old girl’s recent suicide was directly related to bullying by her peers despite her successful battle against cancer, CNN reported.

In the last five years, bullying on social media platforms has emerged as a frightening trend. Words that once disappeared into thin air in the classroom now linger on Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and Twitter posts for all to see and comment on. In 2014, the CDC reported that nearly 20 percent of high school students had been bullied in person and almost 15 percent had been bullied electronically. Schools across the United States have been trying to combat both in-school and internet bullying with disciplinary efforts, anti-bullying campaigns, and social media hashtags. Our school uses one related to our eagle mascot—#protectthenest.

This month, bullying morphed into an even uglier monster. Since Donald Trump won the presidential election, parents received reports of students at one Pennsylvania high school celebrating the election's outcome by shouting, “White power!” and middle school students in Michigan chanted “Build that wall!” as their Latino classmates looked on. The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 700 incidents of harassment and intimidation since Election Day, nearly 40 percent of them in educational settings.

Trump’s response to the harassment on a recent episode of “60 Minutes” was to repeatedly tell students and adults to “Stop it.” He offered no moral lesson, just a direct order without ownership. Other elected officials such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert also publicly condemned the acts. But how should principals and teachers, who are on the front lines with students, react to racist and sexist bullying when the future leader of our nation has exhibited the same behavior as a candidate running for the country’s highest political office?

Many schools across the nation, including the school in Chicago where I teach, have communicated to parents and students the severe consequences of bullying. Schools should discuss both the negative effects for bullying victims, such as anxiety and low self-esteem, and how to best handle disciplinary actions for bullies, such as detentions and suspensions. Vigilance and pre-emptive actions by educators are an important first step to combat bullying.

Schools should communicate clear anti-bullying and anti-harassment campaigns at the beginning of the year at student and parent orientations and be clear with teachers about how to take action when they see bullying inside and outside of the classroom. School leaders should also work with teachers and students in smaller focus groups to hear the types of bullying and harassment that students experience and involve everyone in thinking of solutions for improvement together that are unique to their school situations.

But educators cannot combat bullying and harassment alone. We need adults all over this nation who are role models to our children—athletes, actors, writers, business leaders, politicians, and parents—to both model the right behavior by treating others with kindness and respect and to advocate against racial, cultural, and sexual harassment in ways that are clear and far-reaching. Public speeches, commercials, and other forms of communication can also complement discipline and advocacy. All U.S. students deserve schools that are safe havens, and the adults in this country, including our future president, need to strive to make that happen.

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