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Playground bullying: It doesn't happen in a vacuum

That playground bully? He or she doesn’t spring to life, in all their cruel infamy, in a vacuum.

For nearly two decades, researchers have had evidence that schools’ “ecologies” either sustain or suppress bullying. Now, a study recently published in the School Psychology Review has added another plank to the avalanche of evidence that bullying is not a problem involving just two kids, but rather a systemic failure.

Researchers at the University of Washington monitored students in a three-year, school-wide program, Steps to Respect, conducted in grades 3-6 in six Seattle-area schools. In part by encouraging kids to stand up for their ostracized peers, the curriculum reduced hurtful playground gossip by 72 percent, the study found

Moreover, the early lessons about responding effectively to “relational bullying” — sniping, backbiting and rumor-spreading — have a lasting impact, cutting down on social isolation and on the more sophisticated bullying and that can develop as students get older.

The CliffsNotes version of this wonder-program: School-wide policies addressing bullying and respectful behavior; teachers trained to recognize both “face-to-face” bullying and “behind-the-back” bullying such as gossip and rumor-mongering; and students equipped to act assertively and empathically on behalf of themselves and their peers.

“Bystanders have a powerful role,” the study notes, “typically by directly or indirectly rewarding bullying.”

A separate study released a year ago in the School Psychology Quarterly found that bystanders to bullying suffer at least as much psychological stress as victims. In addition to fearing they might be the bully’s next target, students reported depression, anxiety, hostility and inferiority — all, presumably, bad for a school’s ecology.

Empathy as the gold standard

It makes sense, doesn’t it, making empathy the gold standard long before kids are faced with taunts and jeers that, thanks to the advent of the internet and instant messaging, can reach them in the supposedly safe haven of home even after the school day is over? But it does require the entire school community — the ecology — to be in agreement about what bullying is, all of the forms it can take and whose responsibility responding is.

I bring this up in part because I recently received a letter from a member of the media relations staff at Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools insisting that I had repeated a falsehood. To wit: That bullying was a factor in some of the six student suicides that have occurred in the district over the last 18 months.

“Based on everything we’ve been able to gather through interviews with friends, and family when available, as well as from counselors and other school staff, bullying and harassment were not factors in any of our student deaths over the past 18 months,” wrote Brett Johnson, assistant director of the district’s communications department. “If there are specific incidents that we overlooked, they have not been brought to our attention. Generalized allegations of harassment and bullying leading students to take their own lives are not true upon closer investigation.”

At MinnPost’s request, Johnson has supplied information about the district’s procedures and policies in the wake of a death or other serious incident.

In response to MinnPost’s request for a copy of the investigation, district administrators this week replied in a letter that “no data exists.” “The district was aware of six student suicides, and upon review, there was no documentation or indication that those students were the victims of bullying or harassment on any basis including on the basis of sexual orientation,” the letter explained.

OutFront Minnesota and other GLBT advocacy groups say there is information linking at least two of the suicides to anti-gay bullying. Tammy Aaberg, the mother of one of the suicide victims, has repeatedly said that her son Justin’s friends say he was being harassed over his sexual orientation. 

Anoka-Hennepin students have also told the school board and news media outlets that bullying contributed to at least one of the other suicides and that many students don’t feel welcome in the schools. In 2009, a state Department of Human Rights investigation concluded that two of the district’s teachers harassed a student because they perceived him as gay.

‘Neutrality’ policy

Aaberg and the advocates have pressed the school board to repeal a policy of “curricular neutrality” enacted two years ago. Like other districts, Anoka-Hennepin has strict anti-bullying policies. But because the neutrality policy prohibits district staff from discussing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, teachers have said they were unsure when they could intervene. 

District administrators have since clarified the policy: Curriculum must remain neutral, but intervention is warranted on behalf of any student who reports bullying of any kind, and when teachers and others learn that a student is struggling with his or her sexuality or any other issue, they should act to help the student find appropriate resources. 

 “It took the district over a year and a half to communicate its (initial) expectations of staff regarding its ‘neutrality’ language, and to its credit the district went to great lengths to explain that language had nothing to do with standing by as bullying occurred,” said Phil Duran, general counsel for OutFront Minnesota. “That said, the fact that the district felt it had to go to those great lengths speaks volumes about the way the language was being perceived by at least some staff members as requiring them to stand by and remain ‘neutral.’” 

Duran doesn’t believe the district hasn’t heard any allegations of bullying. “Whether or not [Superintendent Dennis] Carlson ‘received information/evidence that the victims of suicide reported bullying to school staff’ is irrelevant to the question of whether bullying was occurring that contributed to a student's suicide, which simply was not reported to staff,” he said. “And it begs the question of why students experiencing bullying would not feel that reporting it to staff was a step they could, or would want to take. In any event, it is my understanding that bullying was reported.”

Neutral, in other words, is anything but in this instance. It’s a part of an ecology that, in failing to wholeheartedly suppress bullying, risks sustaining it.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board enacted the neutrality policy under pressure from community conservatives in the wake of the state’s finding that district teachers had harassed a student they perceived as gay. Since the student suicides have again pushed tensions over GLBT rights into the spotlight, religious right activists have protested, too, raising concerns about “pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies and use their classroom to promote their personal agendas.”

Board Chair Tom Heidemann “also states that the connections between bullying and suicides are being drawn for the political purpose of attacking the district's ‘neutrality’ language,” Duran said.

What Anoka-Hennepin’s investigation consisted of and what it found has yet to be revealed, but it seems increasingly clear that in this instance, “neutral” doesn’t really exist.

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