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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 27, 2011

School to tackle bullying

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the national spotlight shines on bullying, in the wake of harassed students’ suicides, the school district here continues its effort to promote safe and respectful schools.

Results of a survey, released last week, show that 32 percent of Guilderland students in third, fourth, and fifth grades were bullied in school at least once, and 48 percent of students witnessed bullying. Six percent admitted to bullying others.

Reflecting national trends, the numbers climbed with the grades, peaking in middle school. At Farnsworth Middle School, students reported that 39 percent were bullied in school or on the way to school, 72 percent witnessed bullying, and 16 percent bullied others.

At Guilderland High School, students reported that 33 percent were bullied in school or on the way to school, 68 percent witnessed bullying, and 18 percent bullied others.

The survey results “certainly heightened our awareness,” Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, told the school board last Thursday. Without the survey, he said, “Our awareness would have been contained by our ignorance.”

The survey results, he said, warrant deep understanding of root causes, and ambitious efforts for improvement.

School Board President Richard Weisz said he found the survey results to be “both disappointing and reassuring at the same time.” It was disappointing, he said, to learn that so many Guilderland students had been bullied but was reassuring to know that steps would be put into place to prevent it.

“The first step is becoming more aware; I think that’s where we are,” said Singleton.

Most vulnerable

“The bully may well be the most vulnerable student in our care,” said Singleton, stressing that the school will still tend to the victims and the bystanders.

Guilderland students who reported bullying others had significantly lower rates of perceptions of safety, self-regulation, connectedness and engagement, respect, appreciation of diversity, and extracurricular involvement.

Bullies need support and education, said Singleton, indicating that preventing bullying will take time, expertise and commitment.

Students who reported being victims of bullying also had lower rates on the same concepts compared to students who had not been bullied, but higher rates than the bullies themselves.

Bullying was defined in the survey as “a hostile activity, which harms or induces fear,” said Singleton.

“We have to recognize the signs of bullying and support these children,” said Singleton.

History of bullying prevention

He also said that the problem “warrants continuous study,” not every seven to 10 years.

The Guilderland School District last launched an anti-bullying campaign — “Bullying: It’s not OK” — in 2003. In the wake of complaints that a teacher and coach repeatedly called some of her students “sluts,” a task force was formed, which included parents of students who had been bullied as well as staff members. A program developed by Dan Olweus of Norway was adopted.

Results of a survey, released in March 2004, found that over a quarter of Guilderland students were afraid of bullying some of the time, and that nearly a third said school staff intervened in bullying “almost never”; similarly, 60 percent of self-reported bullies said that staff had not talked to them about bullying.

Nancy Andress, an administrator who has since retired, co-chaired the task force and said when the survey results were released that it would take three to five years for the program to make a difference “because we’re talking not just about bullying but changing a culture.”

The Norwegian Ministry of Education had commissioned Olweus, a professor at the University of Bergen, in 1983, after three teenage Norwegian boys killed themselves, apparently because of bullying, to conduct a large-scale research and intervention project on bully and victim problems. Olweus later served as a consultant to the state of Colorado after the shootings at Columbine High School there.

The Olweus program is meant to restructure the existing school environment to reduce opportunities and rewards for bullying and is implemented by school staff — ranging from bus drivers to teachers. The program is designed for the younger grades because, if it is successful, bullying is not a problem at the high-school level.

Singleton said this week that the Olweus program had been difficult to implement in an American school. Giving an example of a difficulty, he said, “You’re supposed to have a meeting every single day with students.” This is impossible with so many state requirements on school time, he said. Also, the lack of a secondary program was problematic.

“What wound up happening over the years,” said Singleton of the Olweus program, “is we found we could weave some components from it into our efforts.” For example, working with students who witness bullying as bystanders to become actively involved in preventing it, he said.

In March 2004, when Guilderland released the results of its first survey on bullying, the surgeon general had just unveiled a nationwide anti-bullying initiative — “Take a Stand. Lend a hand. Stop Bullying Now.” Both the national and Guilderland programs sought to educate adults as well as children so they would become involved when they encountered bullying. At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that a quarter of the children who bully would have criminal records by the time they become 30 years old.

“New challenges”

The current national campaign — “Stop Bullying Now!” — uses the tagline “It gets better.” The federal government hosted the first-ever Bullying Prevention Summit in August at which Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “The truth is that bullying is ultimately an issue of school safety.” He also said that bullying is “very much an education priority that goes to the heart of school performance and school culture.”

Federal government efforts heated up following a much-publicized suicide at the end of September; a freshman at Rutgers University killed himself after his roommate broadcast on the Internet his sexual encounter with another man. In December, Duncan wrote in a policy letter, “Recent incidents of bullying have demonstrated its potentially devastating effects on students, schools, and communities and have spurred a sense of urgency among state and local educators and policymakers to take action to control bullying.” He urged the passage of state laws to prevent bullying.

Duncan also pointed out that bullying might trigger legal responsibilities for schools under federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.

The Guilderland task force was formed two years ago by merging a committee on diversity with a committee on school safety. “There was so much overlap in conversation,” said Singleton. “The intent was to bring the two together…to be inclusive of all student groups in the context of providing a safe learning environment.”

Guilderland’s task force used figures put out by the assistant deputy secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Kevin Jennings, which shows a steady decline, since 1992, in school violence while at the same time there is no decline or an increase in uncivil behavior like bullying. This has caused “self-protecting behaviors” like dropping out of school.

Up to 40 percent of students in the United States report being bullied at least once, and 10 to 15 percent say they have been victims of cyber bullying. Middle-school students fare the worst, with 43 percent being bullied, and large schools — those with over 1,000 students — have more bullying.

While Guilderland’s five elementary schools are each under the 1,000-student mark, both its middle school and high school are well over the mark.

Singleton points out, though, that the intent of the middle school, with its four-house and team-taught structure is to provide smaller communities within the school. “You still have challenges in common areas like the cafeteria,” he said this week.

Singleton also said that the current survey is “dramatically different in structure and approach” than the 2004 survey. “The schools are also facing new challenges,” he said, citing cyber bullying. “The reaches of bullying have expanded. It’s not just face-to-face; there are virtual interactions.”

The district’s technology committee recently had a heated discussion, he said, on the role of technology in the schools. “Even as we’re trying to control access to inappropriate sites,” he said, “the students can get them on their phones…Sustaining a safe environment is much more complex now than it was even a few years ago.”

The debate centers on whether control is the right approach.

“My mindset,” said Singleton, “is it’s not about control. Our efforts have to be in line with education. We have to educate kids about appropriate and ethical behavior.”

What’s next?

The current Guilderland survey was designed to study six categories — safety, bullying, respect, self-regulating behaviors or a student’s ability to persevere, connectedness, and appreciation of diversity. Students, for example, were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how safe they felt at school. The results hovered around 3, in the center, with elementary students feeling a bit more safe and high school students a bit less. The same was true of results in the other categories.

Asked how students could answer that they largely felt safe and respected while at the same time such a large percentage had been bullied, Singleton replied, “That’s an anomaly we’re wrestling with…It’s directing us towards more target questions.”

He said there would be follow-up evaluations.

The charge at the last task force meeting, Singleton said, was to “think locally.” The results will be analyzed for the district’s seven different school buildings. Cabinets at those buildings — made up of staff, parents, and administrators — will share best practices, Singleton said.

Asked what some of the differences among schools are, Singleton said that, for example, 96 percent of Pine Bush Elementary students reported feeling safe, while at Guilderland Elementary, 86 percent reported feeling safe and at Westmere Elementary, 84 percent said they felt safe.

Singleton pointed out that Guilderland and Westmere are the district’s two largest elementary schools. “They also have the greatest percentage of transient students,” he said, and asked, “How does diversity play into this?”

He noted that Guilderland Elementary has the largest concentration of students who are learning to speak English as a second language. “We have noticed with English language learners real, significant cultural differences,” said Singleton. “In many instances, they interact with students of other countries,” countries where, in the world at large, relations are strained. “It’s a microcosm of the world,” said Singleton.

Another trend that was noted in the data is that students at Lynnwood Elementary School measure slightly lower for their level of connectedness said Singleton. The solution there might be to “pair 100 percent of the students with an adult mentor to feel a connection,” he said.

Singleton stressed that these were “very, very tentative potential goals.”

Overall, he said, “We need to prioritize and go back to students in each building to connect the demographics to the academic needs.”

 Asked about the finding in the 2004 Olweus survey that so much of school bullying occurred under the radar where staff was not aware of it, Singleton said, “It’s still always the goal to make sure staff is well informed to identify bullying. That’s always a challenge. I can’t say our survey touched on it, but it will be looked at.”

Another important push related to that in the 2003-04 campaign was to get students to intervene if they witnessed bullying behavior. “The role of bystander is very important,” said Singleton. “There’s not enough staff to make sure they’re there in every instance. This is definitely a real goal to make this a regular part of our training.”

Singleton concluded, “Our goal is not to look at this as an event every six to seven years, but to make continuous improvement.”

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