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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 27, 2011

Bullying is learned, it’s up to all of us to curb it

Illustration by Forest Byrd

We’ve been writing for decades about harassment in schools. The key to curbing it is consistency — having clear policies in place and creating a culture that sustains those policies.

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.

Harassment reared its ugly head again in 2003 at the high school where two African-American students were arrested by a Guilderland Police officer stationed at the school for third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, 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 seven years ago 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.”

Here it is, more than five years later, and the Guilderland School board has been presented with results of another survey that shows about a third of the district’s students have been bullied and about twice that number have witnessed bullying — the numbers peak in middle school.

Again, the figures mirror national trends and again the federal government has 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 told us this week. With changing district leadership — both on the school board and administratively — it’s easy for initiatives to get sidetracked or forgotten.

We hope this effort has better staying power than the last one. Singleton said that the task force now wrestling with the problem was formed when two committees merged — on school safety and diversity.

This strikes us as a wise decision since so much of harassment comes from lack of understanding of and respect for differences. We have on our pages this week — as we have continuously over the decades — news of diversity enriching learning. Westmere Elementary fourth-graders are pictured holding flags of their countries of origin that fit together like puzzle pieces to make a whole. And Farnsworth Middle School students competing in a Future City contest learned about more than engineering since one of their team members was born in India. They named their city after his native Allahabad and learned about Indian culture as they designed the city’s future.

“The practical import of school safety is just as plain as the moral side of the equation,” the country’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, told those who gathered for the first National Bullying Summit this past summer. “A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. It is a school where kids drop out, tune out, and get depressed.”

He also said, “We have all been told that bullying has been going on in schools forever. But the truth is that it doesn’t have to keep going on forever….Children are never born as bullies — it is a learned behavior.”

President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, “It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child.” It’s not just up to schools. The same is true of teaching kindness and understanding.

In a much more personal message, on the Education Department website, Obama — reacting to suicides of young people who had been bullied for being gay — says that, when he was a young adult, he faced jokes and taunting and considered suicide as a way out. “One of my co-workers recognized that I was hurting, and I soon confided in her. She cared enough to push me to seek help. She saved my life,” says the president.

“I know what it’s like to grow up feeling like you don’t belong,” Obama says in a video. “You are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong…There are people out there who love you…just the way you are…Reach out to people you trust. Things will get better…In time, you’ll see your differences are a source of pride.”

The president concludes with words we hope our readers will take to heart, “As a nation, we’re founded on the belief that all of us are equal and each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness, to make the most of our talents, to speak our minds, to not fit in, most of all to be true to ourselves. That’s the freedom that enriches all of us. That’s what America is all about. And every day, it gets better.”

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