Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 08 October 2010 00:00
There’s no question that bullying is a hot topic in the Plainview-Old Bethpage community right now. While opinions for how to deal with ongoing problems with bullying within the school district range far and wide among students, parents and educators, most people seem to agree that something needs to be done quickly. When the POB Parents Concerned About Bullying held their first community forum on Tuesday, Sept. 28, despite windy and threatening weather, the theater at the POB Library was nearly filled to capacity.
While some members of the community were concerned that school administration had not yet done enough to address the bullying problem in the district, and made their feelings clear in no uncertain terms during the question and comment period, forum moderator Nancy Speller made it clear that the intent of the forum was to bring the community together toward the goal of find a solution, not point fingers.
“We do not claim to be experts on the extremely complex issue of bullying. We also understand that the issues are not unique to our community, and represent a national problem with no simple solutions. We are fortunate to live in a community where school administration, personnel and the board of education care deeply about our children. We are not here tonight to find fault, or to place blame,” said Speller at the beginning of the forum.
Speller also noted that while the committee understood the need to express the anger, frustration and pain involved with the issue, and did not mean to minimize those feelings in any way, the group was there to “move beyond emotions and initiate proactive change.” While some parents did express their anger and frustration (and Speller did tell one audience member that she would be asked to leave if she kept talking out of turn), the tone of the forum remained predominantly civil, despite the high levels of emotion the topic frequently provoked.
A large portion of the forum was devoted to “POB Parent Testimonies”, where parents, whose names were not given in order to protect their and their children’s privacy, read accounts of their children’s experiences with bullying.
“Instead of asking my son ‘How was your day today?’ or ‘What did you learn, or do today?’- like my parents asked me when I went to school in the Plainview School District- I asked my son when he came home from school, assuming I didn’t already get a call from the school, ‘Did anything happen today?’ said one parent, who stated that his child had been bullied for four years. After reading a first-person account of many incidences of bullying, including one instance where the child was suspended for defending himself against a bully, it was noted that the child would be changing to another school for his own safety.
One parent brought in her son’s “sad journal”, where her young child had written down his account of being bullied, complete with line drawings. “They pushed me off the balance beam in the school yard,” the mother read from her son’s journal. Another mother broke into tears while reading her account of her 6-year-old son’s experiences, necessitating another committee member to continue reading her story, who was also on the verge of tears.
Many of the parents who spoke of their children’s struggles noted that they did not receive what they felt constituted satisfactory attention or action on the part of school administration. Several also expressed concern that since there seemed to be no consequences for the bullies, the students who were bullying their children would simply continue to do so.
One father did not read an account of his child’s experiences, but instead stated several recommendations for dealing with the problem, including the idea that children with a record of bullying should not be allowed to participate in school sports or school-sponsored extra-curricular activities. “These activities should be treated as a privilege, and not an absolute right,” he said. He also suggested that bullying behavior on the part of the parents should impair the ability of the child to take part in these activities.
Finally, one parent read an account of her own personal experience with bullying, stating that when she was 13 years old, kids from “the popular crowd” used to push her on the floor and kick her every day after school, an experience which she said had a strong impact on her personal development. With deep emotion, she implored everyone present not to fail the children by allowing bullying to continue. The crowd applauded her courage to come forward on behalf of victims of bullying with an enthusiastic round of applause.
Samantha Frederickson, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was called upon to explain the significance of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), recently signed into law by Governor Paterson, in regard to the bullying issue. The law, which aims to combat bias-based harassment in schools, does not go into effect until 2012. Before that time, school districts will have to take several steps to comply with the law, including revising curriculum and designating a staff member to be specially trained to deal with bullying.
“DASA really is a first step,” Frederickson said. “It’s certainly not the only answer…but it’s a very important step in changing the culture of schools.” She also noted that there were a lot of unanswered questions at this time about how DASA was to be implemented; for example, DASA says nothing about how to punish bullies, only that the commissioner would assist school districts in developing “measured, balanced and age-appropriate responses to violations.”
Many aspects of the new law overlap with the POB Parents Concerned About Bullying Recommended Action Item list, distributed by the organization at the forum, meaning that some of the strategies the committee is now recommending to the district will soon be mandated by state government. Furthermore, while a stand-alone anti-bullying policy is not required by DASA, instituting a stand-alone policy is desired by both NYCLU and the POB Parents Concerned About Bullying. However, there are some differences between agendas; while item 1k of the Action Item List is “Vigorous enforcement of zero tolerance,” Frederickson noted that evening that the NYCLU would advocate against a zero tolerance approach.
Dr. Jonathan Cohen, PhD, co-founder and president of the National School Climate Center, was slated to give a presentation on school climate reform, however Cohen could not be present for health reasons. Instead, the segment was handled by Joan O. Dawson, PhD, a senior consultant for the National School Climate Center. Dawson emphasized that school climate reform is a data-driven strategy, as opposed to inadequate policies that only focus on identifying and punishing the bully —although some parents questioned later to what extent such a policy was ‘inadequate’, since those are precisely the steps many parents said they would like to see the district take.
Nevertheless, Dawson explained how a lot of the school climate change revolved around turning witnesses to bullying into “upstanders”, or children trained to acknowledge that bullying is wrong and side with the victim rather than the bully.
“Someone who will step in, and who will say something like ‘That’s not what you should be doing,’ or ‘This is wrong, and I’m not going to be a part of it’; a lot of times, that’s enough to stop the bully from feeling the power that he or she feels by attacking another child,” explained Dawson.
During the questions and comments segment at the end of the meeting, several parents criticized the school administration, saying that the administrators needed to be held accountable for what they saw as failure to properly deal with the situation.
“I have noticed a common theme throughout this evening, and even with my own son’s experience, that nothing seems to change; the administration does nothing,” said one concerned parent. “My question is, why? Is the administration, are they being bullied themselves by perhaps influential people who are parents?” she continued.
Superintendent Dempsey, who was in attendance at the meeting in addition to several other school administrators and board members, acknowledged these concerns. “We really do intend to work as cooperatively as we can with the whole school community in order to accomplish what is positive. But please know that my colleagues and I are working on this every day, I confer with them on many of these issues. I’m sorry that many of you feel that some of those responses have not been thorough enough or complete enough in terms of resolving them, but it’s not because we don’t care,” the superintendent said. Speller, as well as some other committee members, defended the administration, saying that despite the problems in the past, administrators had been receptive to their ideas and to instituting positive change.
Speller recommended that the district institute an anti-bullying task force, and that if such a group were to be created, it must include parents. She also recommended that concerned community members attend the board of education meetings, and attend the meetings of POB Parents Concerned About Bullying, which will continue to meet. In addition to the Action Items List, the organization is submitting to administrators and board members a list of questions and comments, which attendees were welcomed to contribute to at the meeting.