By Liora Fishman
When I was in the ninth grade, I went to an assembly. It was early in the year, and I was beginning to settle into the looping hallways and brick exterior of Horace Greeley High School. At the assembly, students were shown a movie that was supposed to be a moving and empowering testament to the dangers of bullying and the power of kindness, but all I remembered as I walked out of the gym where these school-wide assemblies took place were bodies of students splayed across a library floor and students trampling each other to clear a crowded cafeteria as gunshots rung through the air. At this assembly, we were shown footage of the infamous 1999 school shooting, the Columbine High School Massacre.
There must have been some message, some powerful meaning to the showing of this movie. But I missed it completely. I am lucky because Greeley was, and still is, one of the places I feel the safest at. As I’ve ascended through Chappaqua schools, I have been treated with nothing but kindness from my classmates and teachers. But what did I take away from this film? Be nice to people who are different from you. They could be dangerous. I understood–then and now–how inadequate this message was, and that in all likelihood, the filmmakers had a different point that I could not see: after all, the footage of Columbine was only part of the movie, not the whole film. It shouldn’t have to be this way. Students should not have to be “scared straight,” terrified into acting kindly towards one another.
The Limits of “Scared Straight”
Our country’s media coverage of events like these is relentlessly the same, and often in such situations, this “scared straight” method seems like the only way to get the message across. It goes without saying that reactions to bullying have evolved in unimaginable, horrific ways; shootings and suicides have been triggered by such events. But the media rarely asks pertinent questions: What was the school doing to prevent this in the first place? What can we do? Thus, for many, bullying has become a bit of a cliché, and after a while, anti bullying campaigns fail to resonate with the target audience: kids. Assistant Superintendent for Leadership Development and Human Resources Andrew Selesnick states that it is “challenging for students to understand how serious [bullying] can really be.”
Nonetheless, regardless of its prevalence in the community, “this is not a perfect world and schools need to be proactive in this area,” explained Seven Bridges Principal Mike Kirsch. It is important to be united against this issue, have a protocol to follow, and a definition of bullying so that we can properly identify and react to it. And that we do.
According to the district’s “Harassment, Bullying and Discrimination Prevention and Intervention Policy,” bullying has the “same meaning as harassment.” Harassment involves the maltreatment of a student for a host of difference reasons: gender, sex, race, and weight, to name a few. If this treatment creates a hostile environment in which the student does not feel safe at school, it meets the district definition of bullying. Principal Martin Fitzgerald, of Robert E. Bell Middle School cites “persistence, exclusion, and power imbalance” as common keywords or factors in definitions of the term. “Conflict is not the same as bullying, nor should it be treated that way…sometimes, if it is treated in this manner, it can even exacerbate the conflict,” said Fitzgerald, but he notes that exceptions are made for “egregious issues or situations.”
Although harassment is often thought as persistent offensive behavior, the district amends this definition for non-traditional situations. “Bullying is something that is generally done repeatedly, but it is also true that one serious event can be considered bullying too,” said Selesnick.
The policy also includes that these acts of bullying can be both verbal and non-verbal. “Exclusion is often the most powerful form of bullying,” added Selesnick.
In addition to his daily responsibilities, Selesnick is also the Dignity for All Students Act District Coordinator.The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) is state law enacted in 2012 that provides a uniform protocol when taking action against or in prevention of bullying. It was created to make schools a safer place for everyone–faculty, students, and visitors–because the ramifications of bullying have proved to impact not only the victim and the bully but entire communities. Students have taken their lives, or taken the lives of others–naturally, the state was inclined to act. “It is a preventative measure,” explained Selesnick, “in reaction to some tragedies throughout the state. We have to do something to make sure that everyone is doing what they can to create a safe environment.”
When Aiming for Dignity
DASA assigns Dignity Act Coordinators to each school. In the Chappaqua School System, these Coordinators are the assistant principals at each school. These administrators go through a training process to ensure the implementation of this policy according to state requirements, and have responsibilities that include investigation and handling of the complaint process. “Every building has a DASA coordinator, and if a student does not know anyone they can go to, that’s the person who will help them and investigate further regarding the situation.”
Yet, bullying has evolved from its stereotypical meaning of physical or verbal intimidation. The most common form of bullying seen today is called “relational bullying. It is a type of intimidation that often includes passive-aggression, spreading rumors, or exclusion. It is a type of bullying that most people experience at points in their lives, and even the type of bullying that people exercise. It is less blatant, and more discreet, and even ingrained in social codes and cues.
With the advent of technology like smart phones, relational bullying is easier to engage in because “the ability to communicate verbally has become minimal. We are missing eye contact, body language, and voice intonation,” said Amy Valentin, a Horace Greeley High School social worker.
This often creates a more complex understanding of the issue, and greater obstacles in tackling the global problem. More often, we have opportunities to write things we would not say to someone in person. Even more pressing is that more often, victims of bullying cannot escape the situation–it follows them home too.
The Impact of a Cyber World
“The Internet creates a world where the students can feel totally unsupervised,” said Selesnick. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the school can get involved in these cyberbullying cases. “If this bullying that takes place on the Internet begins to interfere with life at school, when a student is uncomfortable being in school, and it interferes with the school day…that is an opportunity for school involvement.”
However, for all the grief the “cyber world” has brought upon students and adults in terms of intimidation and bullying, it has had its benefits, as well. The Internet has propelled bullying into a spotlight, and as a result, has driven actions against bullying, and increased consciousness of it. “We’re a lot more aware of [bullying],” said Fitzgerald. “Much of that came through the power of the Internet–obviously, not in the way one might hope it would, but now we can see the documentation of these encounters.”
Such awareness has spurred student run anti-bullying campaigns around Westchester County schools. At Croton Harmon High School, the students launched a campaign called “Words Last Forever”–a program that encourages students to think before speaking, and to avoid judging others before taking the time to talk to them. Similarly, at Harrison High School, students were shown award-winning movie Bully and launched a fundraiser, the first annual “Upstanders Walk,” to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center.
Yet, in spite of all the buzz surrounding the issue, there is only so much the school district can do to combat it. Fundraisers and campaigns can only go so far, especially with its overpowering presence in the media. “Meanness exists in our culture. We go to the movies and see people being made fun of,” said Selesnick. “In addition, meanness also exists in the media. How do we minimize something that is so prevalent in our culture?”
The Tie to Human Rights
“How do we teach empathy?” posed Amy Valentin. It seems like an impossible feat especially to older students. This is precisely what organizations like the White Plains-based Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center addresses. Through annual events for high schoolers, the HHREC holds small-group workshops that discuss injustices such as bullying–but from a different perspective.
“We talk to kids about bullying through larger topics such as prejudice, genocide, and hunger,” said Millie Jasper, Executive Director of the HHREC. “We then approach it from a lot of different angles.”
Although much of this change lies in the hand of the students, Jasper considers administrators and teachers of equal, or even greater importance when attempting to minimize bullying. “If the administration and teachers do not buy into an anti-bullying campaign, it won’t happen,” said Jasper.
I believe in Chappaqua that teachers and administrators are universally united against bullying, and have taken preventative measures and actions to minimize risk. Fitzgerald cites “the climate and culture of a school, the ideals, such as trying to be a community, being more accepting, understanding, tolerant” as attributes integral to a safe, comfortable school environment where bullying can be reduced. These attributes are emphasized in the classroom, where we promote collaboration, and help kids find their place in our school.”
“The Bell 4Core” Unifying Students
Although this teaching style has become increasingly the norm across many classrooms and schools, Bell takes it further with its regular assemblies coordinated by Fitzgerald which emphasize kindness and compassion, and the “Bell 4Core.” It is a mission statement of sorts that underscores four ideals that the school values and promotes. These “core” values unify the students: empathy, self regulation, respect, and perseverance. A visitor can see signs hanging throughout the building and in classrooms in which these characteristics are inscribed. With the Bell 4Core to help, Fitzgerald hopes to “get away from the pessimism of bullying and focus more closely on amplifying community, collaboration, and dialogue.”
Similarly, in Seven Bridges Middle School, there are organized advisory-curriculums and assemblies that address the issue. Furthermore, through peer-leadership positions, students are able to assume a critically important role of responsibility in the community.
“We have an advisory program that meets twice monthly to address issues of civility and to develop a sense of community,” said Kirsch. “Our students raise awareness by making posters that are displayed in the school. Eighth graders, as peer leaders, speak with all students about civility and appropriate treatment of others.”
These awareness and action-oriented programs have undoubtedly made an impact on students. Despite the constant changes within bullying culture–from physical violence, to cyberbullying and implicit exclusion–students’ attitudes have evolved, too. “I find students today are considerably more tolerant and sensitive than they have been in the past. Differences are more frequently celebrated than scorned,” said Kirsch.
However, the only way we can truly minimize bullying culture in schools is to practice kindness and compassion in our everyday life. This is not limited to the playground or the classroom, but to the home, as well.
Bullying does not necessarily stop when we leave school property: if we allow it, it will follow victims throughout their lives, leaving a burden no one should have to bear. Although these vehement anti-bullying campaigns feel relatively new, administrators emphasize that this type of education is here to stay.
“This will be the work that we do for as long as we work in schools. We are always going to be working on compassion and kindness,” said Selesnick, “But this is also about the whole community and culture being aware…it is not an issue where the school stands alone. This is a joint mission.”
Liora Fishman is a 2014 Greeley graduate who will be attending Barnard College in New York City this fall. As one of the 2013-2014 editor-in-chiefs of The Horace Greeley Tribune, she cultivated a love for writing and journalism that has led her to write for local publications such as Inside Chappaqua and The Examiner.