Strengthening bullying prevention efforts of schools

All community adults have roles to play in supporting schools’ efforts to keep kids safe.

As young people get ready for school this time of year, some may feel a mixture of excitement and worry. They may be concerned about moving into middle or high school, about being accepted and valued by their peers and teachers, or about opportunities to try new kinds of school activities. Some young people may also have concerns about issues of safety – and those concerns are certainly reflected in studies about the prevalence of bullying. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 percent of Michigan high school students reported being bullied on school property in 2013. Other studies with younger kids have indicated that bullying behaviors are even more common at the middle school level.

In 2011, Michigan enacted Matt’s Safe School Law, which required schools to adopt policies prohibiting bullying and to implement procedures for reporting, investigating and responding to bullying situations (including cyberbullying). The law also requires schools to provide training for staff and educational programs for students and parents on strategies for preventing, identifying, responding to, and reporting incidents of bullying. It’s important for adults and young people to be aware of these policies and procedures and to understand distinctions between bullying and harassment, as well as the federal laws in place that protect students’ civil rights related to gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and disability.

Schools have a critical responsibility to ensure that young people are physically, socially and emotionally safe throughout their academic development. It’s also important to recognize the contributions that parents and other community adults can make within efforts to create safe, caring, inclusive and equitable school settings. Consider the following kinds of strategies that you could use:

  • Find out how your local school has implemented the anti-bullying law. Schools often post their anti-bullying policy on their websites and as part of their school handbooks. If you can’t locate a copy of the policy, contact the superintendent or principal. School staff may appreciate your interest in wanting to know more about this important issue. Ask about the kinds of educational programs that are being offered related to school safety and how you could be part of these efforts so that you can expand your own understanding of the issues. You may also want to ask if there are ways that you could contribute to any anti-bullying efforts by volunteering time or donating resources.
  • Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, family friend, youth group leader, neighbor, local business person, police officer or other kind of community adult, keep in mind that all adults can have a significant role within efforts focused on the wellbeing of young people. Be willing to build ongoing dialogue with kids – whether it’s during a meal, on a car ride, during an extended family gathering, during a youth group meeting or within settings where older youth work. Ask them about positive things that are happening within their school, other youth settings, friendship groups and social media settings. You might discover things that are happening that help them feel valued, included and safe. These conversations may also spark discussion about instances where young people don’t feel safe. Consider ways you can be supportive if young people disclose that they (or others in their circles) are the targets of hurtful behaviors or if they have been the ones carrying out these behaviors. Be prepared with ways to respond if a young person discloses a harmful situation, and tap the wisdom of people like school counselors or the staff of youth organizations to help you respond in trustworthy ways that also ensure the safety and wellbeing of those involved.
  • Bullying and harassment behaviors are often connected with issues of human differences – such as size or other aspects of appearance, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation and disabilities. Be willing to “do your own work” and to examine your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, language and behaviors related to these kinds of human differences. Are you modeling behaviors that reflect an appreciation for people’s differences, or are you using hurtful language and actions that treat some people as “less than”? If you notice this happening within your own or other people’s behaviors, be willing to use your voice to have a conversation about what you witnessed and how these kinds of negative messages can create environments where people don’t feel valued, affirmed or safe. Help yourself and young people become powerful allies who know ways to use their voices to interrupt these kinds of hurtful situations.

Keep in mind that people across communities have a role to play in addressing these critical issues related to the wellbeing of young people – it’s not solely the responsibility of schools to make a difference. If you’d like to learn more ways to address issues of bullying, bias and harassment, check out the educational resources provided through Michigan State University Extension. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.

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