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August 2012 Verve: Connecticut's Response to Bullying: The Safe School Climate Initiative

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In 2002, Connecticut became one of the first states to pass statewide anti-bullying legislation.[i] The law was substantially revised by the General Assembly in 2011,[ii] and the result is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation on bullying prevention in the country.[iii] Throughout the 2012-2013 school year, it will be up to local communities to implement the provisions of this new law (An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws, Public Act No. 11-232) as part of a statewide effort to create “Safe School Climates” for Connecticut’s youth. This month, VERVE explores why building a comprehensive approach to addressing bullying in our schools is so important, the new Safe School Climate initiative and implementation strategies for local communities, and how the DVCC’s PeaceWorks Project has been and continues to be a unique local resource.

 

BULLYING BEHAVIORS MUST BE ADDRESSED EARLY

 

Once viewed as a rite of passage, the most common responses to bullying behaviors throughout previous generations included “Kids will be kids,” and “It’s only a bit of teasing.” However, several highly publicized tragedies over the last decade brought increased national attention to the issue and have drastically shifted public perception. In response, 49 states have passed formal anti-bullying legislation and/or implemented statewide anti-bullying model policies. Studies conducted throughout this same time period, which examined the long term effects both for those being bullied and those engaging in bullying behavior, demonstrate that both groups have a significantly higher risk of developing and/or experiencing an array of negative socio-economic, health and academic outcomes.[iv] These studies serve to justify a continued focus on developing effective coordinated community responses. For example: victims of bullying are at greater risk of developing poor self-esteem, depression, and suicidal ideations.[v] Those who engage in bullying behaviors in their youth typically abuse substances at a higher rate, have generally poorer social skills, greater mental health problems and exhibit increased aggressive-impulsive behavior.[vi] In fact, one study found that 60% of boys who engaged in bullying behaviors in middle school and high school had been convicted of one or more crimes before they reached the age of 25, and 40% of those had three of more convictions. [vii] The earlier bullying behaviors are addressed the better. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the more direct physical forms of bullying tend to escalate through elementary school and peak during middle school. Verbal and indirect bullying typically increase steadily through adolescence.[viii] Bullying intervention is critical to the overall long term health of our communities.

 

BULLYING AS PART OF THE BROADER SCHOOL CLIMATE

 

In 2002, the Connecticut Bullying Task Force reported, “Violence prevention and anti-bullying models which focus on the whole school reap the fullest gains. By creating a safe and secure school environment, adults enrich the lives of all students, fostering both personal growth and academic learning.”[ix] This is the foundational idea behind the Safe School Climate approach. In setting the scene for the Safe School Climate initiative, An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws made several considerable enhancements to the state’s previous anti-bullying laws that speak to the evolving body of research on bullying behaviors and their lasting impact. Some of these include:

 

  • Redefining “bullying” to provide a much more in depth explanation of the types of behaviors that are of concern;
  • Explicitly citing cyber bullying as a form of bullying and further defining cyber bullying behaviors;
  • Requiring that schools prohibit not only in school bullying, but also out of school bullying when it: creates a hostile environment for the victim at school; infringes on the rights of the victims at school; or substantially disrupts either the educational process or the orderly operation of the school.

 

Additionally, the law outlines a detailed structure, which Connecticut’s local school districts must implement in an effort to address bullying through the creation of an improved climate in which to educate students. This structure includes:

 

  • Each school district must adopt a “Safe School Climate” plan in lieu of their prior bullying policies;
  • Each individual school must designate a “Safe School Specialist” to oversee the school’s responsibilities under this new mandate;
  • Each school district must then designate a “Safe School Coordinator” responsible for meeting and collaborating with all of the “Safe School Specialists” from within that district;
  • Creating mandatory deadlines for reporting, investigating and notifying parents/guardians about bullying incidents;
  • Prohibiting retaliation against those who report bullying;
  • Requiring all school officials, not just teachers and administrators, to report every incidence of bullying;
  • Requiring all school officials notify police when they believe the bullying constitutes a crime; and
  • The State Department of Education will be establishing a network to provide school districts with an analysis of, and resources on, school bullying in the state.

 

According to Jo Ann Frieberg, an Education Consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education, the Safe School Climate approach marks a pivotal shift away from trying to fix a singular problem towards comprehensively improving the climate of our schools. [x] Frieberg and the State Department of Education are taking a leadership role in training school officials on how to best implement this new approach. They recognize that a successful collaboration between local school districts and violence prevention specialists, such as the PeaceWorks project at the DVCC, can really make the difference as this process moves forward. Says Frieberg, “Creating positive learning climates, where all school community members treat one another kindly and respectfully, rests first and foremost with adults who work with young people, both school-based and those agencies in our local communities. All youth serving agencies must work together to provide youth with the best role-modeling, standards and expectations so that children can thrive academically and socially.”

 

Many of our local school partners have already named their Safe School Coordinators:

 

  • Darien:                   Stephanie Falcone, Superintendant
  • New Canaan:         Darlene Pianka, Director of Special Education
  • Norwalk:               Bruce Morris, Human Relations Officer
  • Stamford:              Mike Meyer, Director of Student Support Services
  • Weston:                 Lois Pernice, Pupil Services
  • Westport:              Valerie Babich, Coordinator of Psychological Services
  • Wilton:                  Tim Canty, Assistant Superintendant

 

PEACEWORKS AT THE DVCC

 

PeaceWorks is a project of the DVCC dedicated to violence prevention. During the 2011-2012 academic year, their staff of educators was in 34 schools throughout our seven communities working with a K-12 curriculum that compliments what the students are already learning in class, at each grade level. The PeaceWorks programming provides tools to help students learn how to solve conflicts peacefully and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships by focusing on empathy, tolerance, self-awareness and respect towards all. Last year, PeaceWorks provided prevention education programs to 16, 278 students. A sampling of their classroom programming includes:

 

  • Conflict resolution and empathy programming;
  • Activities and projects focused on social responsibility;
  • Healthy relationships programs which help students identify qualities of a healthy relationship, recognize interpersonal violence, and understand where they can safely get help; and
  • Current and effective anti-bullying and cyber bulling workshops.

 

PeaceWorks educators at the DVCC are very enthusiastic about the Safe School Climate initiative, as it embraces the principles that PeaceWorks has been working on with K-12 students in our local schools for over 25 years. They are looking forward to working with each of these coordinators and the school specialists as these officials take the lead on creating safer school climates for students within their districts. According to Director of PeaceWorks, Claudia Cárdenas, Psy.D., “The mission of PeaceWorks is to collaborate with schools in equipping children with the tools and knowledge they require to be safe in their relationships, both in and out of school.” Says Cárdenas, “We are encouraged by the Safe School climate initiative, as it demonstrates both the state’s awareness of the importance of this issue and commitment to engaging in primary prevention efforts. The Safe School Climate initiative is a progressive approach, especially in its inclusion of cyber bullying, which is of particular importance given the predominance  of technology in the lives of our communities’ youths.”

 

As social environments have evolved, so has the PeaceWorks curriculum and the variety of services PeaceWorks is able to bring to local school districts. For example, PeaceWorks has developed a robust cyber bullying curriculum in recent years, as  cyber bullying has dramatically changed, and continues to change, the nature of traditional bullying in ways that create new challenges for those schools seeking to address bullying behaviors.

 

TECHNOLOGY CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE: RESPONDING TO CYBER BULLYING

 

Rapidly advancing communication technology and the growth of social networking sites have added a complex dimension to the problem of bullying. The use of technology lessens personal accountability, which encourages more cruel and abusive behavior. The rapid transmission of content to a wide audience causes a broader impact as cyber bullying acts are more visible, more pervasive and more permanent. With the 2011 modifications to An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws, Connecticut has joined the minority of states that have explicitly embraced cyber bullying as part of its anti-bullying strategies.[xi]

 

To effectively address cyber bullying under the new law, many schools will necessarily need to think differently about their approach. As a foundational step, the Cyberbullying Research Center recommends that all schools incorporate several key ideas into their curriculum and education materials. Some of these ideas include[xii]:

 

  • Safe password practices and protections of personal information;
  • How to recognize cyber bullying and threats to online safety;
  • How to respond to cyber bullying in an appropriate manner;
  • Hold afterschool meetings and events during the year for parents and community members about online safety amongst youth.

 

Locally, PeaceWorks has been working within the classroom on these ideas, both in dedicated cyber bullying lessons with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and more broadly incorporating these key ideas into already existing programming for other grade levels. In the development of this programming, PeaceWorks engaged several highly-regarded educational organizations including the University of Connecticut’s NEAG School of Education, Futures Without Violence, Educators for Social Responsibility and The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Curriculum.  The goal is to assist students in practicing realistic options for addressing cyber bullying behaviors – not only those targeted at them, but also how to intervene appropriately when witnessing cyber bullying behaviors targeted at their contemporaries.  

 

The trend across the country is that local school district policies are generally more expansive than their authorizing legislation. [xiii] The responsiveness of our local communities to the Safe School Climate ideas that have long been promoted through the PeaceWorks programming, even when those ideas reached far beyond what the previous statewide anti-bullying legislation required, confirms that our school districts have that same capacity. PeaceWorks is looking forward to advancing our historically successful and progressive collaborations with local schools as they implement the detailed requirements of An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws and keeping an eye open with respect to how our schools can continue to reach beyond state mandates to create the safest environment for our students.  

 

Additional Resources:

 



[i] See C.G.A. § 10-222d (2002). See also Frieberg, Jo Ann and Koonz, Marta, pg. 17, “Implementing the New Connecticut Anti-Bullying Legislation,” Connecticut Association of Secondary Schools, available at http://www.casciac.org/pdfs/Handout-JoAnnFreiberg.pdf (last visited August 2011).

[ii] An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws, Public Act No. 11-232 (2011).

[iii] See Generally Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., “Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies,” U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011). See also “Bullying Prevention State Laws,” National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention (2011) (“Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiatives are at the forefront of developing, implementing, and evaluating bullying prevention programs and practices that protect students from harm and create a positive school culture, allowing for the greatest possible academic, social and emotional achievement of all students.”).

[iv] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 3, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[v] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 3, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[vi] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 3, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[vii] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 3, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[viii] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 1, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[ix] Connecticut Bullying Task Force, pg 3, “Brave Enough to Be Kind,” The Governor’s Prevention Partnership Bully Task Force Report (November 2002).

[x] Friebergy, Jo Ann and Koonz, Marta, pgs. 2-3, “Implementing the New Connecticut Anti-Bullying Legislation,” Connecticut Association of Secondary Schools, available at: http://www.casciac.org/pdfs/Handout-JoAnnFreiberg.pdf (last visited August 2011).

[xi] Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J., “State Cyberbullying Laws: A Brief Review of State Cyberbullying Laws and Policies,” Cyberbullying Research Center (July 2012) (of the 49 states that currently have an anti-bullying law, only 15 (including Connecticut) address cyberbullying).

[xii] Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J., “Cyberbullying Report Card,” Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying,” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (ISBN: 1412997836) (2009).

[xiii] Stuart-Cassel, V. et al., pg. 59 and 80, Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies, U.S. Department of Education, EMT Associates, Inc., Folsom, CA (2011).

[xiv] Cohn, A. and Canter, A., “Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents,” National Assoc. of School Psychologists, available at: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/bullying_fs.aspx (posted October 7, 2003).

 

3.2 MILLION: The estimated number of elementary and secondary school students who are victims of moderate or serious bullying each year.


Warning Signs a Student is Being Cyber Bullied:


• Unexpectedly stops using their computer/cell phone;


• Appears nervous or jumpy when an instant message or email appears;


• Appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general;


• Appears to be angry, depressed or frustrated after using the computer or cell phone; and/or


• Becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members.


Warning Signs a Student is Cyber Bullying:


• Quickly switches or closes programs when you walk by;


• Gets unusually upset if computer or cell phone privileges are restricted;


• Avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer/cell phone;


• Appears to be using multiple online accounts or an account that is not their own.


Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J., pg. 3, “Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response,” Cyberbullying Research Center (2010).

 

“Learning without fear should be a basic democratic tenet. All school activity should be carried out in accordance with the fundamental values of respect, tolerance and safety. The school has the important task of imparting and instilling in pupils those values in which society is based --- individual freedom and integrity, equity, tolerance and responsibility.”

From “Brave Enough to Be Kind,” at pg. 1, The Governor’s Prevention Partnership Bully Task Force Report, Connecticut Bullying Task Force (November 2002).