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Making Schools Safe for All Students Through Holistic Programs and Peace Education
In light of recent school shootings and serious bullying incidents, the PJSA calls on current and future educators, administrators, parents and students to utilize the expertise of peace-makers in responding to incidents and in crafting holistic programs to prevent all forms of bullying and school violence.
Drawing on a review of scholarly research and best practices, this position paper is intended to offer a broad overview for school districts seeking to create effective school safety plans. These plans include comprehensive policies that address all forms of bullying and violence, as well as holistic efforts that utilize the ideas and energy of students, teachers, parents, and community members to build community and to create positive school climates. Additionally, the PJSA encourages all teacher preparatory programs to integrate peace education as a means of preparing future educators to create peaceful classroom and school cultures. Finally, the PJSA encourages administrators and educators to seek additional practical skills from experts in peace education.
Conducting a Needs-Assessment
According to the Northwest Regional Educational Library the success of any bullying prevention effort depends on the selection of programs and strategies that fit the needs of the particular school. Therefore, the first step in developing a bullying prevention plan is to carry out a needs assessment, rather than to import an external program. A needs assessment, which involves surveys of children, teachers, staff, and parents, not only raises school awareness about the nature, prevalence, and consequences of bullying, but it also can help school administrators discover nuances to school climate that need to be addressed. Following the needs assessment, it is suggested that an interdisciplinary committee be formed, and a draft of a school policy statement be either revised or created,. This committee is further charged with task of researching empirical bullying prevention programs aimed at the developmentally appropriate level for which the program will be used.
Classroom, School, and Community Efforts
Bullying prevention programs need to be multifaceted and reinforced at the classroom level, the school level, and the community level. At the classroom and school level, the program needs to include reinforcing a student’s ability to intentionally use non-violent strategies, such as talking out a disagreement, peaceful argumentation, and managing anger, and other negative emotions. At the community level, the program needs to include the partnership of multiple neighborhood, school and community partners. A study recently completed on the largest bullying prevention initiative in the United States found, among several other issues, that developing a synergistic working relationship between parents and teachers, and schools and community health stakeholders including program trainers, coordinators, and evaluators, was extremely important for the success of the program. The goal is for educators, administrators, students, parents and the community to work together to create school climates that are encouraging and that support academic and emotional growth.
One bullying prevention program that is receiving attention from empirical researchers specifically at the elementary & middle school level is The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program,,. The OBPP is a comprehensive, school-wide program that was designed to reduce bullying and achieve better peer relations among students in elementary, middle, and junior high school grades. Studies that have evaluated the OBPP in diverse settings in the United States have not been uniformly consistent, but they have shown that the OBPP has had a positive impact on students’ self-reported involvement in bullying and antisocial behavior.
At the high school level, the most effective bullying prevention efforts involve holistic, school-wide approaches. Such efforts involve not just policies, rules and consequences for violations, but extensive training for students, faculty and staff as well as curricular changes. Efforts that focus exclusively on disciplining students or on the safety of the premises, such as use of video cameras, guards, and metal detectors, may do more harm than good. Further, effective bullying prevention efforts in high schools must address all forms of bullying, including peer-on-peer, student-on-teacher, and teacher-on-student, as well as cyberbullying, dating violence, and the daily harassment endured by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered and Questioning (LGBTQ) students.
Cyberbullying is defined as “tormenting, harassing, threatening, or embarrassing another person using the Internet or other technologies.” Cyberbullying may occur even more frequently than in person bullying, with studies finding 43 percent of school-aged youth being cyberbullied, 25 percent of them more than once. Because bullies can use multiple technologies at all hours of the day, victims of cyberbullying often feel as though there is no escape. Although not all cyberbullying takes place on school grounds, school districts have a responsibility to include cyber safety in their prevention plans and to clearly outline policies and procedures relevant to cyberbullying. Hinduja and Patchin (2010) found that cyberbullying occurs more frequently in schools where students perceive the emotional climate to be poor.
Comprehensive school safety plans include teaching youth about safe technology use, including to use privacy protections, to always log out of their email, chat room, and social networking sites, and to post only “PG” photos on social networking sites. Hinduja and Patchin (2010) also recommend that schools remind students about safe technology usage through posters and other signage at computer labs and to ensure that school bullying policies cover this form of harassment. If cyberbullying occurs either at school or originates off campus but has an effect on the learning climate, school districts are legally liable to intervene.
LGBTQ youth are among the most vulnerable to bullying and harassment, both in and out of schools. The Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducts a biennial National School Climate Survey (NSCS) in which they measure how frequently bullying of LGBTQ students occurs in schools and the responses to it. The 2011 survey includes responses from 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20. Students were from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and from 3,224 unique school districts. Results indicated that eight out of 10 LGBTQ students (81.9 percent) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three-fifths (63.5 percent) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8 percent) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.
Further, the majority of students in the NSCS study who were harassed or assaulted (60.4%) did not report it because they believed nothing would change or that the situation might worsen. Of those who did report, 36.7 percent said school officials did nothing. This finding reinforces research that has continually shown that many teachers and administrators continue to do little to counteract homophobic attitudes. There have been very few (and in some instances no) improvements in the quality of the learning environment for LGBTQ youth. Studies have found these same patterns for 15 years. And, a study reported in TES magazine found that gay teachers are even less likely to respond out of fear for their own job s
This daily harassment and abuse takes a heavy toll on LGBTQ youth. Students experiencing this form of bullying have, on average, lower grade point averages, and are less likely to report that they intend to pursue post-secondary education. They suffer from higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem than do their peers. What is more, 50 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, most of whom are homeless because they were kicked out by their family (the other percent run away also because of the unsafe home environment).
Although many state laws prohibit school-based bullying, some do not explicitly cover harassment of LGBTQ students. Interestingly, Montana still does not have a statewide anti-bullying law. According to stopbullying.gov, harassment or bullying based on sexual orientation is not covered under civil rights laws, which might allow some schools to dismiss bullying of LGBTQ students. However, many cases of bullying of LGBTQ students would fall under Title IX based on sexual normative discrimination. As Miller & Micklec note in their forthcoming article What Every Educator Needs to Know About Queer Youth, “teachers are in a unique position of power, and their decision to take action, or to turn a blind eye to the needs of queer youth can literally mean the difference between life and death.”
Model school safety programs address not only address all forms of bullying but also position youth to be part of the solution, not the problem. Bystander prevention approaches teach young people not as would-be bullies or would-be victims, but rather as individuals who will likely witness bullying and thus can play an active role in stopping it. Bystander intervention programs empower both youth and educators to disrupt bullying when they see it. The key is that each individual realizes that he or she is a member of a community and thus must take an active role in ensuring that community is safe for all. It is an essential component of community-building that can ensure that a school climate is welcoming and safe for all students.
The National School Climate Center (NSCC) notes that laws and policies which focus on identifying and punishing bullies, or “zero tolerance” laws, are not helpful. NSCC recommends that all stakeholders—from staff to students to parents—be involved in the creation of a school-wide bullying prevention plan. Students learn to perpetrate violence “through the actual experience of school life – with its culture of otherness, conflict, competition, aggression, bullying and violence – and through concepts provided by teachers and textbooks that further validate these conflict-oriented ideas and experiences.” NSCC notes the importance of having administrators and leaders fully endorse and lead school-wide efforts and to acknowledge that the goal is not just to eliminate hateful emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse but also to create a school culture of respect and peace. As a primary component of a holistic school safety plan, NSCC recommends curricular efforts to address bullying. Peace education provides a model for such efforts in that it is inherently holistic, it reinforces the worth and dignity of all, and it prepares students to create a better world.
In order to create more peaceful schools, the PJSA recommends that peace education be a part of not just teacher professional development, but an integral component of teacher preparatory training. Many teacher preparatory programs for high school educators focus largely on how to control classrooms instead of how to create classroom cultures in which all students feel safe and valued. Instead, peace education pedagogy can prepare teachers to be powerful agents for change. Peace education emphasizes shared power, not power over others, and helps educators utilize creative and effective teaching and classroom management strategies. Such training would prepare future educators to make schools “spaces for critical transformation where teachers play a vital role in creating conditions for students to become caring members of society.” In sum, “Peace education is a viable way to prepare pre-service teachers in their quest to provide their students alternatives to violence, to create safer schools and classrooms, and in a greater context, to promote social cohesion.”
The PJSA also supports The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez (CA) and in the Senate by Sen. Bob Casey (PA). SSIA would require that states and school districts develop comprehensive anti-bullying and harassment policies that include all students. Schools would be required to report incidents of bullying and harassment to their state departments of education so that additional improvements can be made.
Further, SSIA would require that teachers and other personnel receive professional development related to these issues. When educators and administrators know how to create classroom and school climates in which all students feel safe and welcomed, it can only result in a better educational experience, one in which all youth can live up to their true potential.
This position paper is intended to offer school districts a template as they work toward creating safe school climates. Given that no school is alike and thus individualized, needs-based approaches are essential, the PJSA recommends that administrators reach out to peace educators and peacemaking experts for additional guidance. The contacts listed at the beginning of this document are available for consultation as part of PJSA’s External Review efforts. Additional sources of information can also be found in the references cited in this position paper.