Bullying: Schools get students involved in solution
It has already begun. Barely a month into the school year and students already have organized themselves into cliques they'll stick with through summer vacation and beyond. The lunchroom seating chart is in place. Vulnerable students have already been identified, teased and intimidated.
And it may only get worse.
Bullying is a problem schools across the country are working to address. In the suburbs that means attempting to overhaul the school culture.
Paula Becker served on a bullying and cyberbullying task force in Elgin Area School District U-46, which made a series of recommendations to school board members in 2012. One key recommendation was to get all staff members trained in crisis prevention and intervention. The task force suggested training everyone, including cooks, lunchroom monitors and bus drivers, for the best results.
"We wanted to see the school environment change," Becker said. "You can't go in one day and do a bullying presentation and expect the bullying problem to go away."
The task force called for systemic change and that's what U-46 administrators are now attempting to facilitate. So far the district's goal is to have 100 percent of full time staff members trained by 2015.
In Palatine High School, survey results about the school climate were so shockingly negative that a team came together about six years ago to launch Palatine's Promise. High school guidance counselor Jennifer Grapethin is the program coordinator.
"In general the focus is to try to improve the school climate to make it a welcoming place for everyone in this building," Grapethin said.
More than 300 students were selected this year to deliver the message of Palatine's Promise to their peers during homeroom periods a couple times per month. Anti-bullying is the underlying theme that runs through the entire program. Sessions focus on being aware of the needs of others, appreciating people for their uniqueness and recognizing student artists or musicians or dancers who often go without the praise student athletes get.
One program planned for this fall includes several days in a row when students are encouraged to sit at different tables in the school cafeteria.
Grapethin said the program has been well-received by students and parents alike. While parents don't play an active role in the monthly activities, the high school's parent organization has donated annually to help fund Palatine's Promise events. And student surveys have shown improvement in ratings of the school climate as more students feel comfortable within the school walls.
In Community Unit District 300, three schools in Carpentersville and Algonquin have launched a new anti-bullying program this year. The Safe School Ambassador Program, like Palatine's Promise, is student-driven. Leaders in the various social groups are trained to prevent, stop or report bullying, whether it is Internet-based or happens within the school.
Rick Phillips is the executive director and founder of Community Matters, the California-based organization that developed the Safe School Ambassadors Program, which has spread to more than 1,200 schools since 2000.
Phillips said the investment in training 40 students per year along with a handful of educators pays off for schools reaping the rewards of higher attendance because of an improved school environment.
"We've tried to pass laws and legislate bullying and we certainly have tried to punish kids into being kind," Phillips said. "None of those strategies have been very effective."
The key, Phillips said, is to "wake up the courage of young people and adults" in the school building to look out for each other. And give them the tools, of course, to do so. Students -- who are carefully chosen because of their social capital -- learn how to diffuse situations before they become problems, saving friends from being hurt or hurting others.
Parent training is a key component of any Safe School Ambassadors launch and Westfield Community School, Lakewood Elementary School and Carpentersville Middle School all held theirs early in September.
Becker, who attended the meeting even though she is an out-of-district parent, said she learned strategies for talking to kids. The "greet not grill" mentality encourages parents to have real conversations with their children, talking to them and listening to what they have to say. Parents should ask open-ended questions that don't let their kids get away with one-word answers.
As cyberbullying becomes more of an issue and allows the taunts of mean peers to follow students home, parents must increasingly be aware of their children's online presence.
All schools are required by state law to have bullying and cyberbullying in their discipline policies and they must incorporate lessons about bullying into the school curriculum. Most schools have information on how to report incidents on their websites. Many have anonymous tip lines for reporting.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan also has information at ebully411.com. The website includes tips for parents and warning signs checklists to figure out whether children are victims or perpetrators of bullying.
"The Internet provides anonymity and shields kids from the pain that bullying causes their victims," the website says. Parents who report incidents can save their children and others from the most drastic consequences of bullying.
Besides online resources for parents looking to combat bullying, St. Charles School District 303 offers Parent University workshops throughout the year that are open to parents anywhere. Director of School and Community Relations Jim Blaney said there are six sessions each year and while they're not all finalized yet, one always covers bullying.
Becker, who spends her work life giving presentations about bullying, sexual harassment, body safety and similar themes, is encouraged by initiatives in schools across the region. She said she has seen improvement but knows there is much more to do.
"So many people think, 'Oh, it's a rite of passage' or 'Boys will be boys' or 'This is a stage they're going through,'" Becker said. "But no, because a lot of people are suffering."