Last weekend, some middle school staff participated in a Bully Prevention 5 K Race at Sunken Meadow Park sponsored by CAPS (Child Abuse Prevention Services). I wasn’t able to run because I had tickets to the Giants game (talk about BULLYING!!) but I did get to the park to cheer on the runners. My brother and I got to Sunken Meadow early to take our bikes for a ride in the park before the race. We expected a fairly leisurely amble through the woods following the course that the runners would follow. Let me tell you something, a 5K at Sunken Meadow is NO JOKE! The first two hills left us panting and stopping to adjust our expectations. We persevered and despite lots of scratches and maybe a case of Lyme’s disease [just kidding] my brother and I had a great time bicycling through the woods before the race. The middle school We Don’t Stand By / We Stand Up running team represented us proudly. Ms. Kamvakis was among the top 10 runners in her category and when the race was over she was still smiling so that goes to show, we really do stand up!
This race was a metaphor for the complexities of combating the bullying problem. It is simply not easy. Even when you think it’s going to be easy. For one thing, there are no bullies at the middle school. None of our kids wake up in the morning and say, “Hmmm, it’s going to be a great day. I’m going to make fun of people for the way they look. I’m going to hide other kid’s book bags on the bus. And I’m going to make sure that I leave other kids out of the activities I participate in today.” It doesn’t happen. What we do have at the middle school are a lot of really great kids who don’t think enough about how other people feel, mostly because when you’re 12 years old, you think the universe revolves around you, not other people. We have kids who are so insecure in themselves that they are followers; they aren’t willing to be stand up to bullies because that would involve standing out themselves, and they won’t do that. It’s easy to say we stand up to bullying, it’s not easy to do… especially for adolescents.
There are those who will take the “law and order” approach, sometimes called “zero-tolerance”. This theory says that if the school simply implements harsh consequences for those who bully, then bullying will be reduced because students will fear punishment. While I acknowledge that it is important to enforce consequences for those who bully, and I promise that we do this at the middle school, it is a complicated matter. First of all, there are always two sides in a bullying matter, sometimes five sides. Despite the fact that we tell students that they must alert an adult when they are experiencing some condition which may lead to a violation of the code of conduct (yes, this is the exact wording in our code of conduct), whenever there is a bullying matter, students who are alleged to have bullied generally offer context for their behaviors, “he said it about me too”; “she pushed me first”; “he wouldn’t let me sit at the lunch table”; “let me show you what she’s been posting on Instagram about ME”. It then it falls to the administrator or teacher to unravel the circumstances surrounding the incident. I have to tell you, as someone who has been an administrator at the middle level for 18 years, “It ain’t easy!” I am happy when a student is given an appropriate consequence and it changes the behavior. Sometimes however, without the support of parents or the students accused of bullying, you’re left with hard feelings all around and little change in the students’ behavior.
Most of the studies on bullying prevention point out that the real key to addressing this problem is a positive, supportive school climate change. Students need to feel that they belong in school. They need to trust adults and tell them when something is bothering them, especially when someone is bullying them. They need to feel comfortable being themselves. They need to feel there are adults and friends who care about them. And yes, they need to know that if someone bullies them, the offender will face consequences. All of these are aspects of our bully prevention program at Jericho Middle School.
Yesterday was our Second Annual Bully Prevention Kickoff. This year we held an all-day Walkathon to log miles in demonstrating our commitment to prevent bullying! The kickoff was the brainchild of Joanne Verdino, our school social worker who is also an Olweus trainer. Joanne and the members of the bully prevention committee worked tirelessly over the past several months to prepare for this event. The day began with an assembly in which students watched a video of staff talking about their experiences with bullying and about times that they stood up to bullies. Throughout the day, students, staff and families walked around the track to show their sincere commitment to stand up to bullies. 4267 miles were walked/run by the participants. As Mr. Grishman pointed out, this is nearly the amount of miles to travel from New York to San Francisco and back again. The event succeeded beyond our expectations. Everyone had a tremendous amount of fun while at the same time learning the essentials of bully prevention. You can look at pictures on the library website or if you’re following the middle school on twitter @jerichoMS.
The theme of the event was, “Walk the Talk”. This is perfect in light of the discussion above. Bullying has received so much attention in the media over the past several years. New York State passed new legislation, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) which requires schools to do various things in response to bullying. For example, did you know that as a result of DASA, students can be punished in school for harassment they perpetrate online, even in the evenings or on the weekend? The risk of all this attention, in my view, is that the problem may become oversimplified in the minds of students, educators and parents. It’s not simple. In order to address this problem we must all commit ourselves to a positive school climate. We must actually – Walk the Talk. We will continue to implement the Olweus program with the highest level of fidelity possible. I’m grateful for the support we receive from every level of our community: the board of education, central administration, staff throughout the district, and families.
But you know, I am most grateful for our wonderful students. I had the opportunity during the Walkathon to be interviewed by Thalia Perez of News 12 Long Island. It was exciting. But what Ms. Perez said to me was, “I’ve never seen kids like this. They’re so polite, nice. They’re so into it.” And they were into it. We had a few students who ran over 15 miles. Most students walked at least 2 or 3 miles. I was so proud! It’s this kind of spirit that makes me optimistic that we can make a difference. It won’t be easy but I believe that with our dedication and passion we will make tremendous strides to reduce incidences of bullying our school.