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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

We’re All Responsible for Bullying

By Peter DeWitt — August 15, 2011 5 min read
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The other day I took a trip down to New York City to meet up with three of my friends from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Having coffee with Joseph Kosciw (Ph.D.), Senior Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Robert McGarry (Ed.D.), Director of Training and Curriculum, and Daryl Presgraves, Communications Director is an enjoyable experience because all three have a wide variety of knowledge and approach their work in diverse ways, which is very healthy.

We learn so much through conversations with others. A good conversation can get us to expand out thinking patterns and perhaps even change our minds on subjects. Although Daryl, Robert and Joseph have a focus on the LGBT community, they also have passions of their own that they bring to their work. The four of us share a passion for protecting kids from bullying because we feel that all students, no matter whether they “fit in” or not, deserve to feel safe when they go to school.

A great deal of their research focuses on the bullying of LGBT students, which sadly is very high. 7,261 students between the ages of 13 and 21 and found that “84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 72.4% heard homophobic remarks frequently or often at school” (Kosciw, 2009). GLSEN’s groundbreaking work with LGBT students can be transferred to all student populations.

As we sat outside on a warm day drinking a cup of coffee, we had a long discussion about bullying. Bullying is a very complicated issue, and unfortunately it is one that will never disappear. It is impossible to eradicate bullying when we have a population of adults and children who are bullies. We can have an effect on a percentage of the population, but given the increase in reality television shows where bullying is commonplace, anonymous blogs where people can make harmful statements about others without signing their name, and the abusive behavior on the part of politicians during political campaigns (and other stressful situations like talking about the economy, etc), I find it hard to believe that we will ever see its demise.

If we can’t erase it, how can we limit it? There are certain things in our lives that we can control, and other things that we cannot. We cannot control insecure people who want to make hateful statements about other human beings, whether it’s in person or anonymously. However, we can control our own behavior. As the four of us sipped on our coffees and discussed the levels of bullying and the different ways people bully one another, I began to think about how it can be controlled in the world of education, where I spend a great deal of my time.

Adult to student interactions - in school, some children need more adult “attention” than others. These children are often needy because they are not getting attention at home. Perhaps they also have an undiagnosed disability that causes them to stick out in a crowd.

If an adult displays negative body language when answering questions from that student, they are sending a message to other students that they find that child difficult. This may cause that child to be less likely to have positive peer relationships because other kids will not want to befriend them out of fear that they may be “guilty by association.” In addition, bullies see that child as a target. Principals set the tone in the building and teachers set the tone in their classroom. No matter how much we may try to hide we do not like someone, our body language tells it all.

Student to student interactions - How do we expect students to stand up for one another if we do not teach them how to do so? Teaching students to talk with one another is an important element that needs to be taught. I was reminded from a reader that as much as I think we should focus on time management, we should also focus on teaching students how to interact with one another, especially when they do not agree (Palmer). Many educators do this but it would be great to have the time to really make it a focus.

In school, I have had students come to my office to ask why there are certain rules in school. I love the fact that they feel they can approach me, given I’m supposed to be the scary principal. I feel that if we are going to educate a generation to stand up for themselves, we need to allow them to talk, even if they are saying something we may not agree with. There is an old saying, “it’s not in the message, it’s in the delivery.”

The great wide open - we have many students who are under constant adult supervision as they go through their day. This may happen because students are classified or receive Academic Intervention Services (AIS). However, as much as we support them through their academic day, we send them out to recess without an immediate adult contact.

Students do need to learn how to negotiate their way through life without the constant need for an adult. However, we should provide them with one adult out at recess that they can go to if a problem ensues. It has to be an adult who will say something more than, “go play with someone else.”

We also discussed the idea that there are many bullying prevention kits and resources that are being offered to staff. GLSEN has the Safe Space Campaign, which should be used in every school in the U.S. Kits and resources are great tools but only if the administrators and staff are going to use them properly.

The Safe Space Campaign includes a sticker that identifies which teacher provides a safe space for an LGBT student. It has proven to be effective with LGBT students and has a direct benefit for all students because it builds the concept that the teacher has an inclusive classroom. All teachers and administrators should offer a safe space to LGBT students. It’s a win/win situation for the school community.

However, bullying programs are only as good as the staff who use them. What good is a board policy if no one enforces it? What good is curriculum mapping if no one teaches the curriculum? What good is a bullying program if administrators and staff give it a place on the shelf instead of a place in the hallways?

Bullying is a complicated issue for many reasons. It’s often ignored, some people feel it is a word that is overused, and others have never been bullied so they don’t understand the lasting effects it can have on a child. Until we accept that it is an issue, we’ll never be able to change our culture.

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Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E. A., Diaz, E. M., and Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools, 26, New York: GLSEN.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.