The Nice Approach on Bullying

Nothing infuriates Mama Bear more than seeing her baby under attack. Nothing infuriates parents more than thinking that a school won't take care of a bullying problem. The helplessness that a bullying victim experiences gets condensed, refined, and passed on to parents, teachers, schools, and on occasion, lawyers that wind up suing the schools. A bullying problem that all rational adults want to solve can quickly become combative if a school lacks the infrastructure and culture to handle it. Yet building that infrastructure should be anything but combative. Advocates, parents, and community leaders need to work with schools, not against them, to construct a safe environment for their students.

Vickie Henry, senior staff attorney at the gay-rights group GLAD, spends a lot of time talking at schools about how to establish a welcoming culture for gay, lesbian, and transgender kids, who are frequent targets of bullying. "We would be willing to, we have and are willing, to sue schools who are not respecting students' rights," she told me last week. "But it's not sporting to sue them if you haven't told them what you want them to do."

To that end, Henry worked up a flyer illustrating student's basic rights. Here is the first rule: "Comments like 'That's so gay!' and 'Faggot' are not ok. If it's mean, teachers should intervene."

There are other materials available to help teachers and administrators work on bullying. The Pacer Center, which spearheaded October as National Bullying Prevention Month, holds workshops for parents and professionals on bullying. It also promotes online pledges (with student and adult versions) to stop it. The student version includes this phrase: "I will not use my phone or computer to spread rumors or say hateful things, and I won't ignore it when others are cruel and intimidating." The National Education Association offers a similar Bullying Prevention Kit.

The key to all these interactions, however, is collaboration and open discussion. Yes, promoting conversation about contentious issues is messy. But then again, "Silence is not neutrality," as special education teacher David Knight put it in a recent op-ed in Education Week titled, "Why Schools Must Talk About Trayvon Martin."

The list of to-dos to prevent bullying is long and ever changing. Educators need to be on the lookout for "gateway behaviors" like rude comments, power imbalances, indications of students' real intentions towards others, and repeated cusp behaviors, says Elizabeth Kandel Englander in her new book "Bullying and Cyberbullying," slated to be released this week. Social media adds to the complexity with cyberbullying, which even the experts can't agree how to define.

That's a heavy load for teachers and principals. Advocates and parents need to be cognizant of the other pressures school administrators face. After all, they are being judged on whether their kids are at grade level on reading and math, not on whether they are nice to each other.

Henry says civil rights advocates aren't working effectively if their first interaction with schools is confrontational. They will make a lot more progress if they instead try to help school officials understand why a policy—say, asking an LGBT club to call itself "The Diversity Club"—might be amiss. School administrators may not realize, for example, that painting over a defaced locker without first taking a picture of it is akin to ignoring the problem. Parents and advocates should be prepared to point out such mishaps, but they don't have to get in the principal's face immediately. Only in real outlier cases should they pull out their legal guns.

What are some examples of collaborative ways to encourage schools to develop a robust and open culture to deal with bullying? What do principals and teachers need from parents and advocates? What do advocates need from the school administrators? What happens if one of the parties in this interaction feels attacked or that their position is being rejected? At what point does a situation require more combative intervention? What is the students' role? What is the most important thing for adults to understand when thinking about bullying?

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