On March 26th I had the opportunity to hear world class speaker Kevin Honeycutt talk to students, staff and parents about digital citizenship, cyber bullying and the power of the digital world in which we live. I had the opportunity to accompany him when he was in my district and as he spoke to our students throughout the day, the staff in the afternoon, and parents in the evening. This newsletter is a reflection of what I learned that day and how to better prepare myself for the future.
The beginning of this school year was full of change. Change, significant organizational change which leads to workplace relationships and systems that need time to be learned, that makes for a petri dish of bullying. Bullying is often directed at someone a bully feels threatened by. The target doesn’t even realize when they are being bullied because the behavior is covert, through trivial criticisms and isolating actions that occur behind closed doors. Bullys tend to deny and perhaps misconstrue the accusations made against them, making it very hard to even realize or prove bullying is going on. Technology can be an aid in proving that the bullying is occurring and as educators it’s our responsibility to be where our students are digitally.
New experiences are always exciting and sometimes intimidating. Talking to a friend about her daughter’s experience brought this point home to me. My friend, Mel, and her daughter Emily moved to Kansas during Emily’s sophomore year in high school. Emily was very confident, outgoing, smart young lady who came to a Kansas high school with great expectations because of all the wonderful things she’d heard about the school and the great technology enhanced programs they offered. As I helped them move into their new home and listened to Emily’s excitement about what she was looking forward to at her new high school I couldn’t help but want to go back to school with her. My own experiences in high school weren’t empowering or uplifting, so I let her enthusiasm lead me to believe that things were different now. A couple of weeks later I was over for a ‘thank you’ dinner and Emily was simply not the same person I’d seen the day of the move. When I asked her what school was like she used words like “wonderful”, “fun”, “challenging in a good way”. Her Facebook posts were always positive about her new school. But, her voice, facial expressions and body language didn’t say that at all. They told me she was being bullied. She was trying too hard to “be happy”. That evening Mel and I sat on the back porch and talked about Emily. She wasn’t joining in extracurricular activities. She had mornings where she procrastinated going to school or would ‘forget’ something critical and have to go back home to get it. Her grades were C’s and D’s. She had developed major headaches. The bullying Emily was experiencing was *‘exclusion or social isolation’, ‘being treated differently that the rest of the group’ and ‘character defamation’. When Mel had a conference with the principal about Emily’s adjustment to the new school Emily blamed herself for the way she was feeling and her actions or lack of. The principal listed some things that classmates were heard saying about her (trying to get Emily to talk about the bullying) and Emily agreed with them. Mel was at a loss. She didn’t know what to do to help so she took Emily out of that school. I know this story is not unique as it happens all the time. As educators it’s our responsibility to be aware of the signs and take action to help others feel welcome.
During Kevin’s visit I had the privilege of sitting in on a Bullying task force meeting and am hopeful that the task force has a positive impact on the culture. After that meeting I looked up how to handle bullying as a leader and here’s what I found: When witnessed or reported, the bullying behavior should be addressed immediately. If bullying is entrenched in the organization, complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated promptly. Reassignment of the bully may be necessary. Structure the work environment to incorporate a sense of autonomy, individual challenge/mastery, and clarity of task expectations for employees – include employees in decision-making processes. Hold awareness campaigns much like the “Blood borne Pathogens” campaigns. Ensure management has an active part in the staff they supervise, rather than being far removed from them. Encourage open door policies*. Bullying was around way before the internet or technology. It’s a cultural issue and working together is the only way to make it stop. Knowing what to look for is a crucial step in creating a culture of empowerment in our students as well as co-workers – everyone matters!
*For more information see Facts about Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Files/Bullying.pdf