Many kids find middle school and high school emotionally difficult. Those who are bullied find a special corner of hell.

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes … .


— Words spoken by Portia in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”


As the school year is about to begin, we continue to be troubled over the plight of two 14-year-old girls who, with their mothers, recently shared their stories with our Hilltown reporter, H. Rose Schneider. Both of the girls were taken out of their small, rural school by their families, citing concerns for their safety.

One of the girls tried to kill herself when she was 12, saying it was because of years of bullying at school. The other girl was taken out of school this past year, working at home, largely alone, on online courses, after she had lost so much weight that her health was in danger. Her doctor said her depression was caused by the bullying at school.

The girls had tormented each other. There is no right or wrong to a story like this. We, as a newspaper reporting on it, were left with an overwhelming sense of sadness and a need to seek a solution. The mothers of both girls thought their school didn’t do enough to prevent the bullying.

This has led us to question where the lines of responsibility are drawn in our modern American society. How much responsibility lies with a child’s family and how much with a school?

Over the last century, American schools have gone from being places where students were taught the three Rs — often, in our area, in one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher dealt with students ranging in age from 5 to 15 — but lessons on morality or compassion or similar all-important characteristics were taught at home.

Modern schools are expected — and in many states required — to teach about topics as diverse as health and sexuality. In New York, the state’s recently approved Every Student Succeeds Act plan emphasizes social and emotional development and well-being, and this week the state’s education commissioner offered “new guidance and resources to implement Social Emotional Learning benchmarks, policies and programs.”

Here we will state the obvious: Children succeed when families and schools work together.

But how is this best accomplished? For decades, we have closely covered one of our local school districts, Guilderland, as it evolved from a largely rural district with small rather independently-run schools, centralized in the 1950s, and now serves a growing and increasingly diverse suburban community.

The path that Guilderland has taken, with some very troubling and difficult incidents along the way, may serve as a guide to other districts.

In 1988, Daniel O’Neal was among the top five students in his Guilderland High School class. Because he was gay, he was physically, psychologically, and verbally abused. In 1996, he came back to the school — having graduated from Yale with honors and having served in the Peace Corps — to talk to Guilderland students during an assembly sponsored by the nascent Alliance for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students.

“I’m just like you are,” he said, “and I don’t deserve to be picked on.”

A firestorm followed. At the next school board meeting, a letter was read, calling for the resignation of the high school principal, John Whipple. Whipple, long since retired, told us at the time, “Each year, we run an all-school assembly on diversity.” The year before the topic was on racism. “I did not find this topic to be threatening,” said Whipple. “The message wasn’t any different than when we dealt with racism … The message was that people can be different and have a right to be different.”

The matter played into the school board elections that year when one board member said the assembly violated parental rights and some parents “felt their family had been raped” by the event. Ultimately, the school board made the right choice and stood behind Whipple and the assembly.

After the Columbine High School killings in 1999, which shook the nation, the Guilderland superintendent at the time, Blaise Salerno, spoke of the need for “the development of a caring community, one in which we look after each other.” He encouraged students to help those who were troubled, and, if it seemed too much to handle, to seek help from a teacher or administrator. The school board members supported his stance.

It came as no surprise to us that the Secret Service subsequently determined the majority of school shooters were themselves victims of ongoing bullying. Violence begets violence, and fear begets fear.

Harassment reared its ugly head at Guilderland again in 2003 when two African-American high school students were arrested for third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, by a Guilderland Police officer stationed at the school, after they got in a fight with a white student who had made threats and called them “nigger.” The white student was not charged.

“You have a perpetrator who became a victim and a victim who became a perpetrator,” Stephen Wessler told us at the time. The author of the book, “The Respectful School,” Wessler spent 22 years practicing law, 20 of them as a prosecutor, and the last seven directing a hate-crime prosecution unit before becoming director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Crime.

Harassment frequently escalates to violence in schools, he said, adding, “I wanted to focus on prevention.”

The Guilderland School District, too, focused on prevention that year. It had been plagued with complaints about a coach and physical-education teacher calling some of her students “sluts.” A task force was formed, which included parents of students who had been bullied as well as staff members. The district launched an anti-bullying campaign and adopted a program developed by Dan Olweus of Norway.

“You can’t solve a problem unless you first understand it,” we wrote on this page after results from the first district survey on bullying were released.

As the community reacted — aghast that over a quarter of Guilderland students said they were afraid of bullying some of the time, and nearly a third reported that staff intervened in bullying only “once in a while” or “almost never” — we noted that those trends, while troubling, were not particular to the Guilderland schools but are pervasive in our society. We commended the district for taking a “brave and necessary step to reduce bullying.”

We also wrote that the solution was imbedded in the survey results, too, just waiting to be unleashed. Fifty-nine percent of the surveyed students reported feeling sorry for the victims of bullying and wanting to help; similarly, 44 percent reported actually trying to help. The Olweus plan harnesses the power of bystanders to intervene.

The program could take three to five years to make a difference, an administrator said in 2004, “because we’re talking not just about bullying but changing a culture.”

More than five years later, the Guilderland School Board was presented with results of another survey that showed about a third of the district’s students had been bullied and about twice that number had witnessed bullying — the numbers peaked in middle school.

Again, the figures mirrored national trends and again the federal government launched a campaign to reduce bullying in schools. “Our goal is not to look at this as an event every six to seven years, but to make continuous improvement,” Demian Singleton, the assistant superintendent for instruction, said at the time.

This year, Guilderland is starting a social-services program at the school that can be used by families in distress to help sort out problems that, in the long run, affect student learning.

We believe this is a worthwhile step. For the schools in our midst that aren’t there yet, we consulted with a researcher who has devoted her professional life to studying bullying and frequently consults with schools. Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt is the research chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa.

She says she can discern the ethos of a school from what she sees when she first walks in the door. If there is a trophy case prominently displayed, for example, she said that means kids with athletic abilities are being rewarded. On the other hand, an elementary school, for example, that displays artwork “celebrating everybody” shows that it values effort over achievement.

Vaillancourt has worked with schools where 60 percent of the students say they are bullied often and schools where less than 7 percent report being bullied, she says. Using a universal rather than a targeted approach is key. So is starting at the earliest grades, and focusing on social and emotional learning — having schools teach qualities like empathy and understanding another’s perspective.

“Zero-tolerance programs don’t work,” Vaillancourt said. A punitive approach, without considering mitigating circumstances, causes harm. Discipline without caring doesn’t work.

Vaillancourt said you can call any school principal and that principal will have seen a situation where a student who was the target of a bully, a victim, became a bully. “Knowing how awful it feels, why would they want anyone to feel that way?” she asked.

“There is a disconnect,” she answered herself.

It’s a matter of displaced aggression, she said, explaining, “You get kicked so you go home and kick the cat.”

Being at the bottom of a social hierarchy, she said, is such an awful place to be, that the one-time victim would rather be in a higher position in the hierarchy. “The other position is so toxic.”

Vaillancourt believes there has always been bullying. “It used to be thought of as a rite of passage, but now we realize it’s harmful,” she said. She believes the best place to address bullying is in the schools because that is where it most often occurs. “When kids get together, they organize a hierarchy,” she said.

How does a school best deal with this human tendency toward hierarchy exacerbated in a place where so many developing children spend the bulk of their days, not one-on-one with elders who could shape them, as children had been shaped for centuries, but in a mass of peers?

“People who don’t feel valued don’t exhibit the best they have to offer,” said Vaillancourt.

There are high bullying prevalence rates in schools where “kids are morally disengaged,” she said. That means victims are blamed and euphemistic labels are used. Also, students in these schools don’t have good relationships with teachers.

Students need to be held accountable with a high level of structure and a high level of support so that they feel cared for, Vaillancourt said. She went on, “If the teacher doesn’t care, students don’t put in the effort.” Vaillancourt stressed, “Adults set the equation.”

She also said, “It can’t be all sweet and permissive.”

Modeling good behavior is important, too. Teachers can be hypocritical — expecting kids to act one way while they are acting another, she said. Vaillancourt concluded, “It would be great if we valued caring over the oppression of others.”

Each of us should model that — in our homes, in our communities, and in our schools.

Once a pattern of animosity has been set, it takes great courage and strength of will to find compassion — from the Latin for “suffer with” — for the person causing the hurt. But we believe the 14-year-old girls who spoke to our reporter took an important first step. The girls were once best friends and may yet find enough common humanity to forgive each other, and grow into strong and caring women. We sincerely hope they do.

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