School Climate & Safety

Colorado Charter School Angers Parents With Bullying Simulation

By Evie Blad — November 18, 2013 2 min read
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A Colorado charter school angered some parents by holding a multiday bullying simulation designed to help students understand what it feels like to be “shunned,” teased or called names by their peers, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.

During the simulation, James Madison Charter Academy in grades 4, 5, and 6 wore different colors of stickers. Each day, school staff instructed students not to interact with students wearing a certain color of sticker, the paper reported. In the course of a few days, Principal Anna Shearer-Shineman hoped that a majority of the school’s older students would be able to put themselves in another student’s shoes and hopefully decide to change their behavior as a result, she wrote in a letter to parents before the exercise.

But some parents saw the simulation as an “eye for an eye” tactic, and some even withdrew their children from the school as a result.

Shearer-Shineman told the Gazette she’s staged similar simulations in the past, that students were given boundaries to avoid antagonistic behavior, and that the effort fit in with the school’s general approach to teaching.

We are a project-based school, so the kids are used to doing hands-on activities. The simulation fits with that," she said. "We are trying to do something to change behavior. I know people say there's always going to be bullying, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it or can't try to stop it."

The simulation and the subsequent response raise all sorts of interesting questions about schools’ responsibility to identify and respond to bullying.

First, how do we define “bullying?” The term has become sort of mushy and vaguely defined. Does the term just refer to the action of repeated, malicious behavior with peers? The shunning exercise seems to suggest some also see bullying as a lack of action, a lack of contact, a lack of engaging fellow students.

What’s an effective and developmentally appropriate way for schools to address this issue with students? It’s understandable that leaders would want to be active in heading off problematic behaviors. Parents are increasingly holding schools responsible, sometimes even in court, for a lack of prevention. And states &emdashwhich once only required their school districts to adopt policies for punishing bullying behaviors after they occur&emdash are now also adding social-emotional requirements aimed at prevention. For example, these Illinois standards list goals related to self-awareness, self-management, and empathy. Some schools have reported success with creative plans and projects that challenge students in personal ways. The challenge seems to be finding the sweet spot where students are challenged without feeling threatened. As these approaches grow, one federal lawmaker has even suggested allowing federal money designated for teaching and principal training to be used specifically for preparation to teach social-emotional learning.

Finally, what is the role of parents in school bullying-prevention efforts? Shearer-Shineman explained her intentions in a letter to parents she sent in advance of the simulation, and she asked them to discuss the exercise with their children as it occurred, the Gazette reported. Would the outcome have been different if she had sought more input as she planned the exercise? Does the negative response of some parents mean the exercise wasn’t successful.

Shearer-Shineman told the Gazette that kids thought the exercise was “effective.”

The kids understood why we did it and said they thought it was effective," she said. The principal said she received comments such as, "I will stand up for myself and others," "I won't leave anyone out," "I now know how bullied kids feel," and "I will talk to an adult."

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.