In early September, New Jersey passed one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation. The action was in response to an incident where a Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after a sexual liaison he was involved in was posted on the Internet for all to see. At Columbine High School in Colorado, on April 20, 1999, two students who had been the subject of bullying entered their school and killed 13 students while wounding 24 others.
Bullying is defined as "the use of one's strength or popularity to injure, threaten, or embarrass another person on purpose." A recent survey of 300 Virginia high schools found that students at schools with higher incidents of bullying had a lower level of academic achievement, ranging from 3 to 6 percent less than comparable schools experiencing less bullying. The study, conducted by Professor Dewey Cornel at the University of Virginia, also found higher dropout rates and absenteeism at these schools.
The National School Climate Center is focusing its efforts on creating a safe and nurturing culture within schools to maximize student performance. It concentrates on four goals to create a climate of respect within a school. The first focus is creating a democratic community where students help create the rules. They found that students want a safe, bully-free atmosphere and will agree to rules to achieve this goal. The second focus is creating a climate that supports both students and teachers, allowing the efforts of both groups to be appreciated and respected. Next, school policies should support what has been identified as an "unmet need" of many surveyed students, the feeling of being socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically safe. Finally, the last focus is creating a culture that engages students in their learning, whether it be in the classroom, in extracurricular activities or playing a part in school operations.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools have lost 4,000 students in the past six years partly due to the effect of bullying on the school culture. To combat this, they have designated their strong teachers as Learning Environment Specialists. With the support of $40 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, these specialists work with teachers to develop effective classroom management techniques which includes involving the parents in behavioral expectations.
In 2006, the Middletown, Conn., school system created the PRIDE (preparation, respect, initiative, determination and excellence) program. One hundred high school students were chosen from local schools to participate in a leadership training program before school started. They were then assigned to discussion groups that meet twice a month to continue their training during the school year. At the end of the year, they meet and train teachers based on what they have learned. These school leaders impacted the bullying in their schools through their actions.
Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama conduct a similar program with elementary students. Partnering with CrimeStoppers, they teach students how to resolve conflicts, creating a team of young peer mediators. As one fourth-grade student stated, "When we grow up we need to know how to handle this (conflict), so we won't be one of those grown-ups who can't solve problems."
It takes a unified effort of parents, teachers, administrators and students to stop bullying. Turning the other cheek will create a culture that will not allow our students to perform at their best and could put them in harm's way.
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.