Darlene Ruscitti understands that the battle to end bullying at schools has been long and complicated. Too often, she said, schools focus on punishing bullies rather than addressing the systemic problems that lead to bullying.
But the DuPage Regional Superintendent of Schools says a new approach unveiled Friday at a bullying and suicide conference in Wheaton will change that.
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"If it were a simple issue, we would have fixed it by now," she told more than 250 DuPage County educators at the conference. "But bullying is a family issue, a community issue."
A task force comprising educators, parents and government officials rolled out a plan to handle bullying that creates a new manual to guide all schools. It defines bullying and appoints a bullying coordinator at each of the county's 42 school districts.
The coordinators will report back the effectiveness of different strategies and measures in order to continually update the manual, which officials characterized as an ever-evolving document that will follow a "best practices" theme.
"You just don't do training and walk away and think you have solved the problem," Ruscitti said.
The plan emphasizes school improvement and remediation over more punitive measures. Among the areas of focus are social and emotional learning that officials say will help students more effectively understand the nature of bullying.
"We are saying that unless you embed these practices into everything, you won't be able to deal comprehensively and systematically with the issues of bullying," said Ruth Cross, a social and emotional learning coach for Ruscitti's office. "We want this to be systematic and sustainable."
The manual creates a guide that school districts can turn to. Until now, each individual school district in DuPage County dealt with bullying on its own.
However, the addition of the task force's recommendation will allow closer monitoring to what works and what does not work.
"If we are going to do this well, we have to do it right," Ruscitti said. "It's something every school takes seriously."
As the task force developed the manual, it zeroed in on three school districts that they say will be ready to ramp up their preventative program and entered them into a pilot program.
While all 42 school districts will now have a bullying coordinator, the three chosen for the pilot program, Lisle Unit District 202, Hinsdale High School District 86 and Medinah Elementary District 11, will have a more fast-track program that more closely monitors implemented strategies.
"We wanted to choose those schools that we felt were ready to take that leap," Ruscitti said.
Barb Plantz, a social worker at Hinsdale Central High School, said she had not yet taken a look at the manual but that having a base level for all schools will help.
"Consistency across the board is important," she said.
Nationally renowned bullying expert Bennett Leventhal of New York University's Child Study Center, who was at the conference to talk about the connection between suicides and bullying, said he applauded the task force's approach.
He said he was particularly impressed with the inclusion of DuPage County State's Attorney Bob Berlin.
"It's the right way to do it," he said. "Everybody looks at it from a different perspective but you want everybody using the same definition."
The program also lays out strategies for students who witness bullying and emphasizing that getting involved can be a positive experience.
Leventhal likened the involvement to a Neighborhood Watch program.
"It's absolutely crucial to say, 'This is who we are and we protect each other.'" he said. "Mutual concern is a value we want to teach our children. Don't you want your neighbors to do that?"
Berlin said bullying affects the community because bullies tend to continue their negative behavior even after they leave school.
"We got involved because we want to be proactive and not just reactive in this community," he said. "Bullying in school can and does lead to crime and more specifically violent crime. If we can take steps to prevent bullying and keep kids in a better learning environment, then we reduce crime in the long run."
The task force first surveyed children about their schools and students overwhelmingly listed bullying as one of their biggest problems.
Ruscitti said that led to the need for a comprehensive manual.
"If our children say this is an issue, if we don't listen to their voices, we have a problem," she said. "If our children are telling us this, we better pay attention."